A Chat With Robert Duncan McNeill
Robbie talked to robertduncanmcneill.net from Vancouver, where he's currently preparing to direct the fourth episode of the new Showtime series, Dead Like Me. We chatted about his recent directing stint on Enterprise, saying good-bye to Dawson's Creek, and his future acting and directing plans.
In February, you directed the Enterprise episode, "The Breach." What can you tell us about your second directing experience on the newest Star Trek series?
I'm curious to see the final cut of the episode. The show ended up eight minutes short, which is about a day's work. Actually it was more than a day's work, since I ended up shooting two extra days. I did Enterprise, went away to do Dawson's Creek, and while I was gone they called and said we have to shoot another two days on this show. So I came back and shot two days. It was so close to the air date - it was only a couple of weeks ago - that there was no time for me to look at the dailies or edit a director's cut. So I just shot the film and gave it to them. I haven't seen the final cut of the episode.
At the Seattle convention, you said that the episode has "some of the best climbing action ever!" Can you tell us about that?
There is one particular stunt that happens in the show that is bigger than anything that I remember doing on Voyager in terms of a physical stunt. It was a very complex, challenging stunt sequence to shoot on a stage, because I had to create the idea that the crew members are climbing rock walls that are hundreds of feet high. The actual stunt involves three of the crew who go down to save some scientists who are trapped a few miles down in the center of the planet - they have to go rock climbing, rappelling, into the core of the planet. About half-way down they hit this very steep section, some rocks break free, and there's a fall and someone's hurt.
To do this, we built the set from the stage floor to the permanent beams in the roof and used every inch of the set to film the sequence - the climbing, the eventual fall, the sliding down. It was a big set, 50 feet high and 100 feet wide, but still not big enough to tell the whole story. I had to make it look like it was miles and miles down into the earth. So we used every inch of that set, every angle we could find to shoot the sequence. Any place I could put the actors on the wall - I put them there. To maintain the illusion that they were travelling miles and miles, I could never shoot the whole set. We'd move the actors over ten or fifteen feet to the side and change the camera angle, and it would look like they were coming down another hundred feet below where they just had been. When the stunt sequence was finished, everyone who saw it, just looked at it and said wow, it plays beautifully. It's something out of Vertical Limit or Cliffhanger, one of those big mountain climbing movies.
You also said you really liked Phlox's storyline in "The Breach."
The Phlox story, the doctor's story, reveals a part of Phlox's life back home for the first time, that I think is really interesting. There is a wonderful, very simple little scene in the mess hall with Phlox and T'Pol that really played beautifully. The shot design came out very elegant, and it turned out to be one of those very simple scenes that only required two camera setups for the whole scene. Sometimes these simple, quiet scenes are the strongest ones in a show.
I think the show is going to be a pretty good show, especially as it ran so short and we had to add material.
You seem to have enjoyed your stint on Enterprise.
Yes, I did. Last time I was directing Enterprise, they were just getting going and everyone was a bit tense. It seemed to be a combination of the cast and crew trying to distance themselves from Voyager, and to establish the tone and style of the show. There was a lot more tension and higher expectations - but this year, it was really nice. Everyone's settled in the groove. I felt the environment was a lot more relaxed and comfortable in many ways. It was really a pleasure, the whole shoot. It was a lot of fun.
I've already gotten another call to direct, and I'll be going back in late August to shoot another episode. The truth is, last year I was making an effort to find work away from Star Trek. But to be able to keep my foot in a little bit, do one last year and one this year, was perfect for me. I'll enjoy doing the one in August and maybe even a few more episodes next season.
Rumors are brewing about changes on Enterprise.
It seems like on every Star Trek series, somewhere around that third or fourth year, they try to add more spice and more sex. I'm not sure how that's going to play out in terms of the relationships between the characters on the show. I've heard that the studio's asked for more sexuality, more involvement from T'Pol - the character's very asexual - and that the studio would like to see Jolene get a little looser in terms of that character's performance, in the range of the character. I don't know if they're going to hook T'Pol up with any of the regular characters, or with Archer. And I did hear rumors about the Borg returning. Ever since the Borg were introduced, they've been real popular. I'll be curious to see exactly what happens when I go back in August.
Did you know that your last Dawson's Creek episode is airing at the same time as your Enterprise episode on April 23?
No! I can't believe my Dawson's Creek episode is airing against my Enterprise episode! I had such a great time working on Dawson's Creek. Paul Stupin, one of the producers of Dawson's Creek, is a huge Star Trek fan. You go into his office - he has this big, typical, imposing producer's office - and on the furniture next to his desk he's got tons of action figures. I would always say, "Paul, I have to get you one of mine for your collection," but I just kept forgetting every time I'd come in to edit an episode or do work on the show. I kept promising Paul for over two years.
So, on my very last day of editing my very last Dawson's episode, I walked into his office. He was out, so I set my Tom Paris action figure, signed to Paul Stupin, right on his desk, facing his chair, so when he came in, there I would be.
You've done a lot of work for Dawson's Creek in the last couple of years. It must have been fun.
I had such a great time on Dawson's Creek, absolutely no negative experiences at all, except that I had to be away from home so much to shoot the show. It was a wonderful film school, a perfect place for me to go from Star Trek and try other things. It let me do more contemporary work and focus on the characters and the storytelling, without all of the technical concerns of a science fiction show.
Now, I'm working again on Dead Like Me, a show that is really technically driven. It is more complex than anything I've ever done and is as complex as anything I've ever seen, on so many levels. It combines all the elements of a Star Trek episode in terms of special effects and visual effects, with all of the action of an action show with stunts, with all of the character work that you'd have on Dawson's Creek or a show like that. It's such an amalgam of so many different styles. And it's a black comedy.
Dead Like Me sounds really different.
From looking at the pilot, looking at the first rough cuts of the first two episodes, it's definitely going to be a very unique show, a very original kind of idea. It reminds me a lot of my short film, 9mm of Love, because in my short film, we portrayed Cupid, this mythic character, as this modern-day hip, very contemporary edgy character. And Dead Like Me is all about "grim reapers," people who collect the souls of people who are about to die, and it modernizes them, makes them very hip, clever, contemporary and funny.
The pilot is amazing. They spent thirty days shooting and spent something like six million dollars on it. I get seven days and about a quarter of that budget, so it'll be hard to replicate the pilot, in terms of its style and its scope, but I'm anxious to do it and see the final product.
And I'm really looking forward to working here. It seems like they have a good crew. And you know it's funny, I walked in the office this morning and there in the office is Robert Habros, the man who directed the episode of The Outer Limits I did a few years ago. Robert's now the visual effects supervisor on Dead Like Me.
So how similar are Dead Like Me and 9mm of Love?
I would never accuse Bryan Fuller of plagiarism, but I think one of the reasons he brought me into this project is that Bryan remembered 9mm of Love enough that he realized that I could do the same kind of thing on Dead Like Me - combine the very realistic black comedy elements with the action and visual effects. Bryan saw my short film just once, when he came to a screening we had in the theater on the Paramount lot. I remember him really connecting to 9mm of Love - we obviously have similar tastes, and both shows have similar elements. So this is going to be a very interesting experience working on this show. I am really anxious to finish the shoot so I can see how it turns out.
What about your other "dead" directing assignment - your upcoming stint on The Dead Zone?
The producer of The Dead Zone, Lloyd Segan, had talked to me about coming into their next order of shows. When we met a few months ago, he made a verbal offer of a show, but as it turns out, they got a very small order for the summer, only six episodes. They had prior obligations to some of their regular directors, so they've asked me to wait until the next episode pickup to direct the show.
I'm really looking forward to doing The Dead Zone - I've always thought Michael Piller was very very talented, and I'm happy for his success. And he always gave me tickets to the Braves games when they were in L.A.! He's a great guy.
Are you working on any of your own original film projects like 9mm of Love?
This year's been so filled with television directing that I haven't had a chance to develop any of my own projects. When this assignment is done in May, I'm not planning on working until I direct my Enterprise episode in late August, so that I can sit down and put some energy back into my own ventures.
One thing I've been working on just for fun - Connor Trinneer and myself have talked about doing a stage production of Sam Sheperd's True West. I like him a lot, and we get along very well and have similar sensibilities, and I think we could play brothers very easily. I think it'll be a lot of fun to do a play like that as an actor's exercise. So Connor and I are going to get together over hiatus and read through the play and think about how we can put this together in a way that doesn't put too much pressure on us. I don't want to pursue a Broadway run or anything like that. I haven't been acting for so long, though, it'll be fun for me to sit down and work hard on a character.
We're trying to think about how we could put together a production in a small theater in Los Angeles. Once we get it down, we may take it to different cities for short runs, just as Patrick Stewart did with Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, when he would take some of the cast out to legitimate theaters to do short runs. To perform the play as full-on theater, as opposed to a convention production - though we could possibly do it at conventions in the right setting, in the right kind of environment.
We both love the play - there was a production on Broadway a few years ago where the two actors swapped the roles, playing a different brother each night. Connor and I thought we might duplicate that, have the fun of playing both parts. Something a little different.
Lots of fans are wondering if you've given up on acting.
I just got a call from my agent, offering me a guest slot on one of the television series, but I was already booked to direct another show. My agent called and said, "we give up - you're never available, the directing's so much better, you should just go for the directing." So I still get offers, but I'm never been available. Next year, though, who knows? If the directing slows down, maybe I'll be doing something. It's funny, on Dawson's Creek, Paul Stupin kept offering me guest star roles whenever one would come up when I was directing, and he'd say, "Why don't you take that role?" and I kept turning it down. I just didn't feel comfortable doing it. But in hindsight, I wish I'd done one of those - it would have been fun.
Last year you rode six hundred miles on the California AIDSRide. Any plans to do it again?
I'm not doing the AIDS ride this year - I just can't take the time away from my family, after all the time I've spent away this year. But I'd love to do another cycling event like it. It was a great experience for me personally. I felt like I'd earned the money I raised for the charity - instead of just auctioning off a script on stage. Of course, the money does go to a good cause, but this was a very different experience. I hope to do it again.Thanks so much for your time, Robbie!