An Interview With Robert Duncan McNeill:
The producer-director of "Chuck" talks about life behind the camera
Robbie chatted with robertduncanmcneill.net via phone from Los Angeles, where he was preparing to produce and direct for the second season of Chuck. He talked about his recent work, and answered some questions from the readers of robertduncanmcneill.net.
Q: So: what did you do on your unplanned hiatus, during the writers' strike?
Robbie: When the strike first started, it was confusing. Particularly with Chuck's intense schedule -- all of sudden, there was nothing to do. It felt like "I've got to get back to work and get busy."
Then I took some time for myself. We traveled a lot. I went to the Sundance Film Festival, which was really fun. I went to New York and saw Johnny (Ethan) Phillips and his play, November, a new David Mamet play on Broadway. He's really great in the play, along with Nathan Lane and Laurie Metcalf and Dylan Baker. I saw some old friends, and saw some wonderful theater - stuff that I don't have much time for in a production schedule.
And then I saw India! Part of my daughter's senior program in high school was to train as a teacher in yoga. She did a training program here in Santa Monica, and the teacher she studied with has lived in India and is very connected to Indian culture and yoga traditions. He invited some of the teachers who trained under him on a last-minute trip to India, including my daughter. She was really honored to get the invitation. Since the writers' strike was happening, I decided it was a great opportunity for me to have really a memorable trip with her and for us to do something together in her senior year. We were able to see parts of India connected with Hindi culture, and yoga, and religious places and practices, in a way most tourists never could. It was amazing!
We started at an Ayurvedic health center in southern India. Ayurvedic medicine is traditional Indian medicine that has been around for 10,000 years. It has to do with certain medicinal plants and herbs and certain health practices and yoga. It was almost like going to a holistic spa for a week, because there were consultations with Ayurvedic doctors, who are a kind of nutrition and health specialists. We did that and had yoga classes every day, which for me was something brand new, that I had never been exposed to.
Then we traveled north. It took us a couple of days to get to Rishikesh, which is on the Ganges River and is probably the most well-known spiritual mecca for the Hindu religion. We were there during Shiva Rattri, which is a big festival with pilgrims with turbans who walk for weeks and weeks with bottles to get water from the sacred Ganges River. It was really powerful seeing that.
It felt so different being over there; it felt like we were on another planet. I related it to Star Trek, in a way. It's like going to another world, where every tradition and even their way of thinking is completely different. It was really wonderful.
Plus I got to hike in the Himalayas. We hired a guide. We wondered through villages along the path - there's no road, there's no contact with the outside world - and the people who live up there in the Himalayas were so friendly. They would invite us to sit in the shade by their houses to rest, or to share some lunch. A very friendly people.
India was interesting, too, for the entertainment scene. We got to see a little of Bollywood movies and TV networks. It was interesting for me, as someone in the entertainment business, to see the scope of the industry they have - it's enormous! It's amazing stuff, when you consider that they have very different budgets and resources, yet produce amazing musicals. Everything has singing in it! I never understood why they have so much singing and dancing in these movies, but being over there and getting to know the traditions and the religious side, I saw that singing is so much a part of that country. There's always mantras and chanting, which become song - it's all connected. So it's very natural in the middle of some dramatic story for someone to break into song - it's very familiar to them.
Q: It sounds like the musical phase of American movies of the '30s and '40s…
Robbie: Yes, but the way they experience music is much deeper than that. In the Bollywood TV shows and movies, the songs are not that complicated; they're often repetitive kinds of hooks. They'll get a little song about something like "Marry the boy!" It just keep repeating and repeating. The song and dance numbers would go on for 10 minutes, but it was basically the same little chorus repeated over and over. That was something I noticed in the yoga practices and the things we were doing - this mantra mindset of repetition the same idea over and over. It was really interesting.
Q: When Samantha Who? went to series, I thought but you were going to be with them, but you're with Chuck, now. How did that happen?
Robbie: It just came down to a money and a business decision. With Samantha Who? I loved the show and I love the cast, and I still talk with Christine Applegate and Barry and Tim and some of the actors. I'm very good friends with Don Todd, the writer/producer, and Peter Traugett.
When that show went on the air, it was a smaller show. They didn't have a lot of money, and quite honestly they didn't have the position for me. The job that I do on Chuck, they don't have that job at Samantha Who?. Not every show does. Some shows have a kind of full-time director/producer, and some shows don't - they just don't have the money.
We've stayed in touch, and the people at Samantha Who? have continued to ask me to ask me if I could direct, but I just haven't been able to do it.
Chuck is written and produced by the guys who did The OC and Wonderland, the people who produced the Supernatural episode I directed, and the Danny Compton pilot I directed a couple of years ago (Jump), so it was a lot of guys I knew I already. They wanted a full-time director/producer, and I looked at the pilot. Chuck looked like so much fun.
In some ways, it's probably a better fit for me than Samantha Who? which is very much a female-oriented show. I can relate to much of that, but I can relate much better to the Chuck mindset, with the spy world and the action and the comedy of it. It's a lot of fun.
Q: It is a lot of fun to watch. When my daughter is home from college, it's one of the few shows that she and my husband and I will all sit down to watch. On the TV Guide website, persons often comment that it's a family-friendly show that everybody of all ages can enjoy.
Robbie: That's what everybody says. I really think the audience will start to grow. The kids watching it would talk to the parents, and we found our audience was growing in all demographics, even the over-50 demo and the under-17 demo. NBC tested a couple of different timeslots, but they stuck with Monday at 8, which will be perfect for us.
Q: So as a producer/director, what do you do that's different than simply directing?
Robbie: I come in much earlier in the process. If I was a guest director, I would get a script and make a some tweaks. I would suggest a few things, but mostly I would shoot what they give me. As a producer/director, I get to tune in on things far in advance of a script getting published and ready to shoot. Like now, I'm listening to the writers talk about stories and in my own way helping the writers shape the overall picture of the show. I'm already starting to talk to all the actors, so I can hear what their concerns and thoughts are, so we can change things when we get into the next season, so that they feel more satisfied with the work. My attention is mostly on the actors, and then with the writers, then the network and studio.
One of my main jobs is I hire all the directors. When the show got picked up back in February, I talked with the studio about a number of directors they like, and with Josh Schwartz about the directors he likes, so we could start putting together those lists. I'll coordinate that, and as these guest directors come in, I'll help make sure they're prepared. When I hear from the writers in these meetings about what they care about in story and character, I'll give whatever they say to the guest directors. As they start doing their work, I make sure we're all on the same page.
Then there's post-production and editing that I get involved in. But on this show, Josh is very particular and very involved in post. He's great in post. He's one of the best. He's able sometimes to completely re-write and re-work a show in post-production and editing to make it better.
Since Star Trek I haven't really been on one thing for very long. It's nice to have a place to come back to for a few years. This year, my title changes. Last year I was a producer. This year I'm going to be a supervising producer. Hopefully season two will go well, and Chuck will come back for one more season.
Right after Star Trek: Voyager I was traveling all the time. I guess I got on their list as one of those guys who will go on location to direct, so that's all I was getting. I had more location work than I could ever do. I just had to say, "No, I'm not going out of town anymore."
Q: Some of the readers of the website have submitted questions for you. Here's a set of questions that always come up: Do you miss acting? What would it take to lure you back to acting on television or on the stage? Will you ever do a cameo or background appearance on Chuck?
Robbie: They wanted me to play a role. I go into casting for all the episodes, even the ones I don't direct. They were really pushing hard for me to do one particular role, but I didn't want to do it. Eventually I might do something on Chuck. If it were the right thing, I would be happy to do it for fun.
If I were picking something to do as an actor, I would love to do a play, especially a fully produced play. I don't mean a little black-box play down at some store-front theater. Don't get me wrong - that's fun, but there's something really exciting about a fully produced play that's got money and time behind it, and an audience that's going to show up to fully enjoy it.
When I got to see the show with Ethan Phillips in November, it was a sold-out crowd, full of laughter, and it was really exciting. Something like that would be great. It's very satisfying. I recently took my daughter to a play. It wasn't the greatest play ever, but my daughter and I just had so much fun going to see it. There's nothing like it.
As much as I like directing television -- and there's a lot of fun to be had there, with great moments of acting and film-making -- it still doesn't compare to my first love, which is theater. It's an actor's medium, and it's an audience's medium. You suspend your disbelief for about two hours, and you get into the emotion and the high drama or the high comedy. That's always great!
Q: And your future…?
I had lunch with an old and dear friend of mine who has been an actor his whole career. He's close to 50 now, and he's getting frustrated with his acting career. He had been on a TV series 20 years ago and had directed a couple of episodes. He asked me about getting back into directing some, and maybe direct some episodes here or there. My advice to him was to do only one thing, act OR direct. When I did it, I had to just do one. I'm a director now. There's no way for me to say, "Well, I'll act a little and I'll direct a little." For me it wasn't a good strategy. When I said, "This is what I'm doing. I'm a director," a lot of people understood it, and took me seriously as a director.
I don't think I could pursue acting unless I were to stop directing for a few years. I'm not ready to do that yet. I can't easily be in the mindset of doing both.
Q: So you're having more fun as a director?
Robbie: I'm getting a lot more satisfaction. Every actor is different, I guess, but for me there was a lot of personal anxiety. Acting wasn't a completely comfortable job for me, even though I did it for many years. As an actor, I get very nervous and insecure. I would get stage fright - which I would fight through, because there are parts of acting that I love. I would struggle with that.
I don't struggle the same way with directing. I don't have that performance anxiety. I question sometimes whether I'm going to be able to do a good job, but it's not the same as having to stand in front of everybody and have somebody say "Be funny! Go!"
Q: Here's another question from a fan: If you could be a super-hero, who would you be, and why?
Robbie: That's a tough one. (Pause.) I don't know. I always thought Batman was cool, because he was a super-hero, but he was still very human. I wasn't a big comic-book kid, but watching the TV show Batman, there's was something cool about being a real person, a human who had the ability, with all those great gadgets, to do great things. Those more magical super-heroes to me were harder to relate to than someone like Batman who was a real guy, but with a secret life.
Q: Somebody else asks: What do you miss LEAST from your Star Trek days?
Robbie: The waiting around. I got incredibly bored as an actor just sitting and waiting. You come in very early, and they're setting up lighting or doing things, so you wait and wait and wait. You work 12 hours, but you really only working for an hour out of your day. I don't miss that. I like to be productive.
Q: If acting and directing had not opened up for you, what career do you think you would have pursued?
Robbie: I was interested in marine biology and oceanography. I probably would have done something relating to that. I always loved underwater things.
Q: So the "Thirty Days" episode on Voyager, was that partly your idea, or did they create that for you?
Robbie: No. I think that wasn't really for me at all. That was just coincidence.
Q: Do you have any pets? If so, what are they?
Robbie: I have a little dog who's about 8 or 9 years old. A little white poodle. Not a very "manly" dog, but he's a cutie.
Q: I don't know if you saw it, but Kate Mulgrew did an interview last year in which she talked about your daughter Taylor, and said wonderful things about her.
Robbie: Taylor's going to college in New York next year, and she and Kate have developed their own special friendship. Taylor really looks up to her as a role model and a real inspiration. I love that.
Q: Thanks so much for your time, Robbie!