robbie directs jolene blalock (t'pol) on the set of enterprise

Taking A New Direction:
Robert Duncan McNeill

Star Trek: The Official Monthly Magazine
November, 2003
by Ian Spelling
© 2003 Paramount Pictures

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Trekkers and aliens, please meet Robert Duncan McNeill, Director. You may remember the name, because in a previous life McNeill was an actor. He even co-starred on a little something called Star Trek: Voyager. McNeill, in fact, became an actor-director during his days traversing the Delta Quadrant in the U.S.S. Voyager. Then, when the show ended, McNeill slowly but surely let the acor part of the actor-director description slip into oblivion.

"I don't really bring up the acting part that much anymore," McNeill says. "Some people still recognize me, obviously, from Voyager, but if I'm introduced to people now I say that I'm a director. It's kind of a surprise to me that the acting has taken such a back seat over the past year or two. I thought I'd pursue acting and try to build my career as a director. But last year, the last TV season, was a huge directing year for me. It went much better than I ever anticipated. I didn't have any time to do any acting last year, and I had so much fun doing what I was doing that I wasn't really interested in acting. So now I'm not really sure. I'm not sure when I'll do any more acting. We'll see. As long as I stay busy directing, right now I'm enjoying that a lot more."

"Acting is such a small area of focus. You get one character. You get one set of scenes, and you focus on that experience down to the smallest detail. With directing you get to look at the larger picture. You look at every scene. You do research in a different way. You get to plan your show and build your show, and it's a very different process from being an actor.

As an actor," he continues, "you're at the mercy of how they shoot it or edit it and all sorts of other things. Acting and directing are still in the same world because, ultimately, we're all storytellers. Anybody that makes TV shows or movies are just trying to tell a story, but as a director, I fell like I get to tell a whole story. There's an interesting debate about acotrs and whether or not they prefer to work with directors who've been actors. A lot of them do, but some actors would prefer a cinematographer or an editor or someone else around as a director, because the actor might have his or her own personal way of acting, and might not want me to impose my thoughts about acting technique on them. So it's been a learning curve for me, working with all sorts of actors over the last few years."

Over those past couple of years, McNeill has indeed been busy calling the shots from behind the camera. He directed several episodes of Dawson's Creek before that show ended its run last spring. And he helmed episodes of Dead Like Me, Everwood, and Enterprise.

"Dawson's Creek was a really big part of my life the last two years," McNeill says. "I enjoyed working with that company and those actors. I was very sad to see the show end. It was just a great groups of people and it was a lot of fun to do. The actors on that show really wanted to do their work and do their best. It was great to shoot in Wilmington, North Carolina, which is a great small town. I hve a lot of family connections in North Carolina, so it was always fun to go home.

"I'm going back there actually, in a few weeks to do a new show called One Tree Hill. That show originally started as a mid-season replacement, so they were only going to shoot six of them. Now they've expanded the order to 12 episodes and they've moved up the start date to the autumn and, depending on how it goes with the ratings, they could get a full season pickup. At this point, I'm just doing the one show, but hopefully the ratings will be there and I'll get to go back and do more episodes. [note: Robbie directed two episodes for One Tree Hill: "Life in a Glass House," and "The First Cut is the Deepest."] Some of the producers and crew are people I worked with on Dawson's Creek, so it would be great if that came together. I'm actually attached to a film, if it comes together. That would be a teenage comedy in the vein of American Pie."

How did that experience compare to Dead Like Me, a dark comedy about a young woman's afterlife experience as a grim reaper? "That was an interesting show to do. I was very happy with the episode [Reaper Madness]. It's a very challenging show. They shoot a very big show with lots of action and dark humor. They have a very energetic shooting style on that show, which keeps you busy while you're shooting. I loved working with Mandy Patinkin and Ellen Muth. She was great. I'd been interested in working with Bryan Fuller, who was executive producer, but he had left [to do Wonderfalls] before I got there. I was disappointed about that because I think a lot of Bryan and he'd established the voice for the show, which is so unique and what makes the show different from anything else.

But the new executive producer, John Masius, started exactly the same day I started. John is a very experienced producer. He created Touched by an Angel and Providence, and he goes back to St. Elsewhere. He's a very seasoned veteran and I got along with him very well. That's a cable show, so they only make 12 of them a year. Hopefully that will get a pickup. The reception for it has been very good. So I think they'll be back and they've told me that if they are back that I'll be back to do more."

McNeill also made time to direct his second episode of Enterprise. He followed Cold Front with The Breach . In the more recent episode, several members of the crew helped evacuate Denobulan geologists from deep underground, while the usually easygoing Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley) dealt with an injured Antaran who refused to be treated by him because of a mutual distrust between Antaran and Deobulans.

"I was really please with The Breach," McNeill says. "I thought it worked dramatically and I loved all the rock-climbing. When I first read it I thought, 'We must be going on location.' Star Trek almost never goes on location. They like to shoot on the stage and make it seem like they'd taken this really big journey. But we sat down and broke it apart, and I ws really thrilled with how all the climbing and acting sequences and stunts came together.

"I'll brag a little right now - I think we had some of the best action stunt sequences that Star Trek has ever done as long as I've been involved with it. And I'm not talking about special effects sequences, which are always fabulous. I'm talking about old-fashioned stunts. We had all of this rock-climbinga nd crashing and falling and hanging and sliding. They don't typically do those kinds of traditional stunts on Star Trek. That was a big order and I think we pulled it off.

McNeill is also directing his third episode of Enterprise for Season Three of the show [Twilight.] Having just read the outline of the episode, McNeill described it as "quite a show" and belives it will be another hour of action-filled adventure.

"I don't know if they chose me for this one because the action sequences worked so well last season or not, but this one is just loaded with lots of action and special effects," McNeill says. "It's really hard to encapsulate this episode, but its one in whihc we jump into the future a bit with Archer [Scott Bakula.] This timeline issue with Silik [John Fleck] has been a big part of the series from the beginning. So this is jumping into the future with Archer and seeing something that he does that affects the timeline, as well as affecting the past and affecting all sorts of other things, in terms of big issues with humanity and civilization and also interesting interpersonal relationships. We get to peek 20 to 30 years down the road.

This looks to be a really challenging show to do. Things change dramatically once you actually get into prepping a show. You realize you can't afford things or you realise something is just impossible to shoot. But right now it reads as if Enterprise is [going to be] destroyed. The bridge is blown apart, literally blown apart, with bodies sucked into space. Things like that are supposed to happen. Bulkheads in corridors are supposed to get blown away. The shipe is getting blown away bit by bit. It's going to be interesting to see how big this stays. I don't know how we're going to blow the roof off the bridge and have people sucked into space. I read that on the page and I went, 'Holy crap, how are we going to do that?' It's still a TV show. We've got to do it in seven days. We'll see. Tomorrow will reveal a lot. I'll get the full script. We'll sit down and have our first meeting on it. And then we'll get into it."

Despite all of his experience with Star Trek, as both an actor and a director, McNeill admits that he doesn't necessarily feel more at home on a Star Trek set than he does on the set of any other show. "I haven't done so many Enterprise episodes that I feel like I'm one of the team, to be honest with you," McNeill says. "I've done one a year, which is fine. That's as much as I've wanted to do. I've really focused on trying to build relationships and experiences outside of Star Trek after seven years on Voyager. So, going back once a year to do Enterprise, it's certainly felt comfortable enough. I know the faces and I know the routine.

But it also so different from Dawson's Creek or Everwood or even Dead Like Me. Star Trek is so different from those other styles of shows that I always have to really go back to basics and rethink the genre and this type of show. Enterprise is a big show. It's got big effects and big production values, which isn't something we had on Dawson's Creek. We had the beauty shots, but it was a different way of working. Also, by the end of Dawson's Creek I really felt like I was part of the team. I was clearly one of the company's favorite directors and I felt the same about them."

A few weeks before this interview, Star Trek Monthly hd a close encounter with McNeill at Cration Entertainment's Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas. McNeill appeared on stage, posed for photographs, performed at an after-hours event and signed countless autographs. All in all, he looked to be having a grand old time.

"Vegas was a lot of fun," says McNeill, whose current projects include developing a sci-fi series with Robert Picardo; running for a second term as a member of the board of the Screen Actor's Guild, which he also served as the chairman of the low budget film committee; and continuing his "cycling obsession" by signing up to ride the last six days of the Tour de France next year, and participating in the bicycle portion of a celebrity triathalon to benefit the Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

"It was pretty fresh for me because I'd done maybe one convention in the past year. We all know that there are a lot of Star Trek alumni who attend conventions on a very regular basis. I went through that time in my life, too, where I was doing one a month or so. Over the last couple of years I hadn't done that many. So it was a lot of fun. It was good to see the fans and to see my friends [Tim Russ, Roxann Dawson, Ethan Phillips, Robert Beltran, and Kate Mulgrew were all on hand.] I had a good time, and I'll probably keep doing a few conventions now and then."

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