An Interview with Ronald D. Moore - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Ronald D. Moore needs no introduction in this blog. I was extremely fortunate to catch up with him at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival and ask him my arcane, craft-oriented questions.

This interview assumes a working knowledge of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and is filled with spoilers for the series. If you haven't seen the show, then go rent the four seasons of it now. I'll wait.

Great, you're back. Good, huh?


CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: I’m going to try to ask you a few questions you haven’t been asked a million times before.

It’s almost unheard of for a TV show to kill off a core cast member unless an actor dies or asks for too much money. And BATTLESTAR kept its core cast firmly in the show in spite of situations where that might not have been the most natural outcome. For example, Colonel Tigh is outed as a Cylon, but he stays on as the ship's executive officer. Lee Adama becomes defense counsel for Baltar even though he's only the Commander of the Air Group. Then he becomes President of the Twelve Colonies. And then there's Kara Thrace. Are you ever tempted to let the story go where it wants to go? Or is keeping the core cast just an unbreakable aspect of TV, the way sonnets have to rhyme or they’re not sonnets?

RONALD D. MOORE: I never felt that it went off in an unnatural direction. I was never tempted to kill of any of the main cast just for the sake of killing them off. Usually when some character was dying, it was for a specific story purpose. Starbuck's death played into the larger myth. Laura dies, but it was a long protracted illness and part of her character from the beginning. There were people we considered part of the core cast who died, like Dualla.

But you're hiring a main cast because you want to use those characters and players. You consider them the heart of the show. Even if you're really intrigued by a plot turn... A TV series is a story about these people.

So there was very strongly an effort to find something interesting for Lee to do. At one point we were going to have him more involved with the Marines. We were sort of groping to find something for the character to do. We had Romo Lampkin, but he needed someone to play off him. And we thought it would be interesting to put Lee in that position. He was a much more interesting character out of the uniform, as a lawyer or a politician. So that was really the path we wanted to take him.

The concept is follow these people, not you follow these events. It's not a story about the Galactica as a ship. We're not up in the CIC and then we're down in the engine room as if it were a novel. You make a judgment at the beginning: here’s our core group of human beings. So the natural story is to keep them in the drama.

You could do a show about the Galactica but it's antithetical to a series -- it's not what a series is.

You could set up a series that was much more about an environment or a place or a situation, and have characters rotate in and out week to week. That's a different format than I do. Even as I say it, it's a fascinating concept trying to do a show like that. You're fascinated by this battleship or this police station. But then you'd approach it differently. You wouldn't invest the audience in those character so heavily.

Pilots are all about introducing the core characters. You want to see what happens to those people.

CS: You’ve rather bravely talked in your podcasts about how you’ve winged some important plot points. For example, you decided in the middle of writing the script that Sharon would shoot the Six on the surface of Caprica, so Helo could fall in love with her. Aside from Kara’s father figure seeming to be Daniel, did you ever feel you painted yourself into a corner?

RM: I'm still mystified that people got that out of the show. I know a lot of people had that impression, but it was just a bit of backstory. It was intended to tell you about Cavill and Ellen more than anything else. It solved a numbering problem in the Cylons. I continue to be surprised how many people ran with it. I even had to start telling people [in the podcasts] not to make too much of it, and people were still disappointed that the finale didn't go there.

CS: I guess because you developed so much trust in the audience, that they figured it if you threw out anything so loaded with meaning, it must be a plot hook.

RM: I didn't know I was throwing out a hook. It was just an anecdote.

CS: Are there any aspects of the way you structured the mythos of Battlestar that you might have done differently with hindsight?

RM: We wouldn't have had Boxy. The intent was that you had Boomer and you had Tyrol and Boxy as a sort of nuclear family going into the series. We tried to work him into episodes, but the character wasn't organic to our show. He was an idea that started and then stopped. We weren't even invested enough in him to kill him -- it seemed gratuitous just to kill him. Even for me.

We weren't going to deal with the fact that Boomer's a Cylon for a long time. We'd have these three forming a family. When I was writing "Water," the second episode, I said, "And she starts realizing she's a Cylon."

If we'd know that, we probably would have set her up differently in the miniseries.

We wouldn’t have thought certain things about the series that turned out not to be true. For example we intended to go to other ships in the fleet. We were going to go out to the fleet -- to the hospital ship, the prison ship, we were going to track a serial killer through the fleet. That was part of the sales pitch for the series. It's not just claustrophobic aboard this aircraft carrier and Colonial One.

That turned out not to be practical. The prison ship with Tom Zarek destroyed our budget. It was so far over pattern we had to make major cuts in the next five episode. So we realized we had to put all the action aboard Galactica and Colonial One. The series pivoted at that point and became very much about the characters on those two ships. And that meant that stories had to be about the overall story arc. Had we been able to go find stories on the other ships, maybe we could have gone another season or two. You would have had more shows not about the mythos. Instead we had to put the key cast in the heart of the action all the time, and that meant you had to go to the main story.

So we wouldn't have gone to the prison ship so early, to start that language of going to other ships.

We probably would have yanked Lee out of the flight suit sooner. Laura Roslin didn't really have anyone to complement her in the political world. It would have been good and useful to have him in conflict with her; we could have told stories more easily.

CS: Do you feel the DVD market has changed how writers write TV?

RM: It’s changed the audience consumes TV. And it’s probably given writers like myself a sense of “they’ll watch it on the DVD, that's where it will live forever. That's the real version." So when the cut comes in twenty minutes over, I'm thinking, "I've got to cut this thing down, but the real episode will be on DVD.

But it doesn't impact much in the day to day writing.

CS; You mention in the podcasts that your cuts often went quite a bit over, and that means you were shooting quite a lot...

RM: It's sort of my refusal to cut it. I don’t know what I want to cut -- it's refusing to chop into bone and muscle while the show is on the stage. Sometimes we'd come in twenty or thirty minutes over, and I've always been able to find a way to bring that down in the editing room, or make it into two episodes, but if I don't have the material I can't do that. Budget aside -- they scream about how much it costs. But creatively, I’d rather have all of it.

CS: People smoke in BATTLESTAR; and of course you’re a smoker. Could you talk about what went into that decision, and what were your most important pros and cons?

RM: I'm a casual smoker. I smoke in the podcasts for effect. I smoke with actors.

But I'm just not a big fan of the whole antismoking movement. People should get a life and leave people the fuck alone. It's just for people's convenience, it's not really a health hazard that someone's smoking somewhere near you. I mean, what about a double whopper with cheese, that's unhealthy. You suck in a lot of fumes from the air, and you’re going on about the fumes from a guy in a bar -- get over yourself! So yeah, that was me putting it in people’s faces.

CS: You talked in your session about how Tricia Helfer was able to make the various Sixes all distinct through her acting chops. How much did you define the different models of Sixes and Eights, and how much of that was the actors making their own decisions?

RM: It was kinda both. That was a slow revelation, that she could differentiate herself -- the makeup people could put her in a brunette wig, and there was a stunning difference. Put glasses on her -- you could change her physically without makeup and prosthetics.

CS: But I'm talking the personality--

RM: Maybe that was something we came up with in the story break. Who is this particular model of Six. Or the writer might call the actor and ask, "What's a version you haven't played?"

Tricia had no experience, she was a model. We didn't know in the miniseries what her chops would be like. We found out she could do variations of Number 6, each one she gave something special. And we wanted her to be more than in Baltar's head.

You start writing towards the actors. You hear the way they say lines. When they have trouble with one kind of material, you don’t give it to them. It's part of the job really.

And the actors we had were fantastic. Even the extras -- they learned how to operate the consoles in CIC on Galactica. They had a real dedication and love for the series.

CS: What’s your creative relationship with Mrs. Ron, if it's not impolite to ask?

RM: I bounce things off her. She doesn’t read the scripts, she wanted to be spoiler free. She would never see the episode till I watched the director's cut. She'd be in the car plugging her ears trying to avoid hearing spoilers. So she was really my first audience, because I saw it before anyone else.

CS: Do you feel the broadcast model of television is broken, and where do you see television going now that no one has to watch the commercials? Does it affect how you think about shows you’re developing at all?

RM: It’s a very changing universe, and it's changing in ways that we don’t’ understand. But it's hard to try to have that influence the creative. What is the new environment? You keep trying to do TV as you know it.

You think, the broadcast networks are more like this, basic cable is like this, pay cable is more like that. What's the kind of show I want to do? Do I have something that work for CBS? Maybe it's too dark, it's more a Spike TV show. Or is it something I really need to push boundaries and it’s going to go over to pay. What is broadcast TV going to be in ten years? I don't think the people that work there know. It's all about what do they want to buy this year? This is the year they want serials. This is the year they want procedurals.

I'll never forget the year LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES came out. I was working on BATTLESTAR, but you're always working and pitching other ideas. I had two pitch meetings set up when suddenly LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES hit, and my agents call up and say, "Can you make your show more like LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES." And I say, this is a completely different idea, it has nothing to do with either of those shows. "Yeah but if you can give them something like LOST, it will really help." They just want that hit.

CS: So you just pitch them what they're looking for now and let the future be their headache.

RM: Yep.

CS: I’ve noticed a number of screenwriters got their jobs by methods they would never recommend for anyone else. A friend of mind got a job by critiquing an X-files episode on a chat board that Chris Carter happened to be reading. As I understand it, you broke in by getting a spec script to a Star Trek writer by arranging a visit to the set through your girlfriend...

RM: I got a set tour via a girlfriend. I had written a Star Trek script, and I gave it to the tour guide, who was one of Gene Roddenberry's assistants.

It sat for seven months in the slush pile until Michael Piller was setting up a new staff. It was just a Rube Goldberg series of coincidences.

[Note: unlikely as this story is, STAR TREK: TNG was famous for being about the only show on television that accepted, and even bought, pitches and script from anybody, even SF fans. Still, do not try this yourself. It will never work. Except when it does.]

CS: What do we need to do in Canada to make shows as good as Battlestar Galactica? Would you care to speculate on what we need to do better?

RM: I think you just have to decide to do them. The talent pool is deep. You have to be willing to spend the money. You just need a place to sell it. And that's starting to happen. There's a natural progression. You've built a basic foundation of talent here. Everyone from the crew to the production staff, writers, actors ... just put the resources behind it. There's no reason you can't make it work.

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8 Comments:

Good interview. Thanks.

Regarding the Daniel-as-Kara's-father thing, I'm still mystified that RDM is still mystified. People think that because it's frakking obvious.

In writing classes, my professors would caution us to be sensitive to what the story is trying to become. Generally, I think RDM was masterful at that but not in the case of Daniel. It seems pretty clear that's what the story was trying to become. I could make a similar comment about the finale, too.

By Blogger David, at 7:10 AM  

Great interview, Alex. Thanks. It answers a few questions I had about the series.

Not that it matters, but he comes off more than a little arrogant (and ignorant). I thought the doctor smoking in the medical room was silly and wouldn't exactly instill confidence in him.

Oh, and I don't eat double cheeseburgers, either, so there goes that excuse.

By Blogger Tim W., at 5:03 PM  

Thank you, Alex!

By Blogger Danny Stack, at 5:24 PM  

Tim,

Well as a guy who spent an hour and change in a small breakout session with him, I can say that to me, he seemed pretty much like the other top showrunners I've met -- Peter Casey from Frasier, Rob Thomas, Greg Daniels, Phil Rosenthal from Raymond, Rene Balcer from Law & Order, Tom Fontana, Russell Davies from QAF (UK) and Doctor Who, which is confident and self-assured. Not arrogant. He was actually pretty warm and open.

The other way of looking it is the guy ran what was essentially a 50 or 60 million dollar business with 200 employees. You better have some opinions. That is in essence what they're buying.

But arrogant? I think you're way off on that one.

By Blogger DMc, at 9:18 PM  

DMc,

You could be right. I might have just been turned off by the smoking discussion. That's not to say I wouldn't work for him in a second if I ever had the chance.

By Blogger Tim W., at 10:55 PM  

Alex, I missed RDM's panel at Banff, which made me sad. Thanks so much for posting this interview! And it was great to meet you in the mountains...

By Blogger Jennica, at 3:22 PM  

In RDM's Banff panel, a point came up that I've been pondering--the disparity of success between cinematic and televised scifi. From cinematic high art to blockbuster entertainment, scifi is well represented. Yet no television shows are big hits, and the genre struggles to be taken seriously among television critics. I can't think of another genre with such a disparity, and I'd like to hear your thoughts on it, Alex.

A few possible causes come to mind. Perhaps higher production costs become burdensome over a series' long run. Perhaps audiences are reluctant to commit to watching scifi on a regular basis (perhaps due to social stigma) compared to seeing a single film. I am surprised by some critics' and the Emmy's inability to recognize BSG, half-way surprised.

By Blogger David, at 10:50 PM  

Interesting comment on the disparity between tv and film for sci fi, David. I think things go the opposite way for comedy. There are a good number of TV shows which deliver consistent laughs day in and day out or week in and week out and yet we're lucky to get as many as three genuinely funny, memorable movies in a year.

Probably Sci-Fi benefits from the many months and years available to perfect special effects for just a 2 and a half hour film, whereas for TV that same amount of time and money is not available to keep up with the demands of a tv schedule.

By Blogger Camels With Hammers, at 1:50 AM  

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