My Notes from the Ron Moore Master Class at BanffComplications Ensue
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Sunday, June 14, 2009

While I was at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival, I got to attend a "Master Class" given by Ronald D. Moore, developer and showrunner of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. I'll be running my interview with him on Wednesday, but you also might like my notes from the master class. Sean Davidson, editor of PLAYBACK magazine, asked a whole lot of clever and fascinating questions, and then he turned it over to the audience for more questions.

SEAN DAVIDSON: You announced around Season Three that you were going to wrap up BATTLESTAR at the end of Season Four. And you were at the height of your popularity. What was the thinking?

RON MOORE: Simply, the story was coming to an end. The series had a built in premise. Eventually they would find home or not. Right from the outset there would come a point where the audience would stop believing in the idea that they were going to find a planet to live on, whether it was Earth or not, and they would stop believing that the cylons might kill them every week. After a point it becomes, yeah well they’re never gonna get there. It's GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. I didn't want to get to that point.

In the third season already I started feeling that we’re approaching the third act. By the end of the third season we'd identified four of the five secret Cylons. We're in the third act, time to wrap it up, but do it on our own terms.

And it was nice to go out on our own terms, at the height of our poplarit. To walk away and feel we did a really good show.

SD: The Sci Fi Channel must have wondered if you couldn't do more seasons.

RM: They were hesitant. They wanted to be sure it was those reasons and not other reasons that we were ending the show. They hemmed and hawed. But they had become fans of the show too. They wanted to see what the end was going to be too.

SD: Would this show have worked differently if you had taken it through the syndication market as was done with the Star Trek franchise? Could this have worked in syndication or on a conventional network?

RM: Well, syndicators hate serialization. That would have been a major bugaboo. Networks don’t much like it either. And on a cable channel, we could go much further in content, in terms of how graphic, how dark, how challenging in terms of character and story and ambiguities. Sci Fi was creatively the best place for it. We would have had more money on a network, but we were happy to trade money for the freedom we had.

SD: It seems SF sometimes seems to be a harder sell, or is treated more roughly on a conventional network. E.g. DOLLHOUSE -- everybody's wondering, why would Joss even go back to Fox.

RM: They don’t like it. Networks and studios don't like SF. It's odd, they're all familiar with it. The top films of all times have been SF films. Few were the meetings where you didn’t have the common language, the touchstones to references. But they’re afraid the core demographic is too small, that the show doesn’t break out. There hasn’t been a sf show that’s been a hit, unless you define LOST as SF. And that’s a debate. It’s a mystery, a thriller. But there hasn't been a prime time space opera like BATTLESTAR. Even the original STAR TREK was a ratings failure in its day. So they do have a reason to argue the way they argue. But it also becomes groupthink where they don’t want to try it. They develop it, "Oh, let's commission a pilot," all the way up to the point where they have to greenlight it, and then they don't.

SD: So you had a freer reign at Sci Fi?
RM: I didn’t have the alternative experience to compare with, and it depends who your network executives are. If your show is a success, you can do what you want.

The crucial fights with BATTLESTAR happened before we were on the air. It was all thrashed out in year one. Then the show was lauded and praised, and we didn’t have the same knock-down drag-out fights.

SD: What were some of those--

RM: How graphic the show was, how dark, how depressing the show was going to be.

Oddly I didn’t have any fights about politics or religion in the show. There were no arguments about suicide bombers, or the abortion show. There were no creative arguments about thematic or substantive themes. It was all, this show is so dark and depressing no one is ever going to watch it. This character is so evil we won't watch him. Those were the fights we had. And with those fights, you can whittle and compromise. What if I cut two frames,
what if I add a subplot to appease you and then cut it in the editing room? Whereas we couldn’t cut the politics and religion without being in a completely different arena... but we never had those arguments.

SD: Did you pretty much keep to the direction you originally planned?

RM. We played it pretty loose. I always knew where I wanted to end or w what the midpoint clifffhanger was. I could think ten episodes ahead. For instance I knew and I set up in the show bible that at the end of Season One, I wanted Adama to put Laura Roslin in jail, and we did. But the path I had mapped out wasn't the one we took. We realized, oh, this is a better way to get there, but we’re going to the same place.

As far as the day to day with the actors, I told them, I want to make this work with you. I want you to improvise lines, do what comes to you,
but we have to have one take as scripted. I gotta have the protection. Bbut that said I encouraged them and the directors to play with the material. Because there’s a difference between writing a line and saying a line. There are certain things that are more organic and real and you can’t script that, but there are also certain lines that have to be said a certain way, and it’s my job as showrunner to know the difference.

Very often the characters went through changes. We were sitting in the room and saying, how many times can Baltar talk to Head Six. You continually find ways to subvert the audience’s expectations. The audience is very familiar with TV, they know the conventions, the styles of story. You can tune into the first ten minutes of a show and know what the last ten minutes are going to be. I try to destroy that. You've seen this story, and you know our character is going to turn right, but no, he turns left. Any time you can pull that off you've surprised the audience. And storytelling is about finding surprises.

SD: In the podcasts you really pulled back the curtain, but on "Scar," you actually let us listen to an entire story breaking session. Was it anything particular about that episode?

RM: It could have been any episode. I like behind the scenes kind a stuff. I was a big fan of the original STAR TREK series. I was always fascinated by that. How do they do that, what changed in the story. I wanted to give that back to the audience.

On of the best parts of the job is sitting in the room with writers, arguing and laughing. The writer's room is the lifeblood of the series, where the fundamental work of creating the story is done.

SD: "And they have a plan..." Did you feel you painted yourself into a corner with that line in the precap?

RM; David Eick painted me into a corner. When we were coming up with the precap to define the large mythos of the show, we were coming up with succinct pieces of information the audience needed to know, and David said, "and it ends with, 'and they have a plan.'" "What does that mean?" "I don't know, but it's great!" And so I got talked into leaving it in. And it became one of the hallmarks of the show, the Cylons have a plan. And I kept getting pestered with it for the rest of the show. "What's the plan?"

It will all be revealed in the DVD movie. And if you don’t like it it’s cause you’re not paying enough attention. (Laughter.)

SD: Your fan outreach has always been a big part of your work. Why is that important to you?

RM: I just like doing it. I was a fan so I can identify with what it was wanting to get information, to pick their brains.

There’s times I don’t want to do the podcast that week. I'm wondering, why did I agree to do this. But the podcasts were always the best and last piece of the production process for me. They'd be the last time I'd watch the episode. I never go back and rewatch a whole episode after that. So they're my final thoughts, and become part of my process.

SD: Could you tell us a little about CAPRICA, the prequel to BATTLESTAR?

RM: We're working on the scripts right now. And we're already wildly over budget. We're not even shooting and we’re over pattern. We start shooting in mid July.

David and I had talked a couple of times in very casual conversations, that if we did a spinoff, we didn’t want to do another war piece. We didn’t want to do the first Cylon war. So let's do it as a period piece. Let's do the creation of the Cylons. It's in the past, they’re not doomed for quite a while, but it's a society that is flying apart of the seams. They've got this breakthrough in AI ... how did that lead to the events we saw in Galactica?

The endpoint doesn’t bother me. Just because you know the Nazis lost World War II doesn't mean you can't watch a movie about it. You have to become invested in the stories of the characters.

SD: When the show was set on New Caprica, you seemed to be able to draw material from Iraq, which clearly wasn't envisioned at the beginning of the show.

RM. The intention from the get-go was to make the series about us, what we’re going through as a culture. Science fiction at its best is a prism through which to view society. And we kept finding that their situation had interesting paralles into our situation. We weren’t going to rip from the headlines, but the situation came up -- here's a military-civilian disconnect, a society at war, where democratic principles are tested and broken in that crucible.

But it wasn't about making a point about how society. It was undamentally about finding out how our chars would react in that situation. We weren't trying to give an answer about what we as a society should or sholdn't do. We were asking, what would Starbuck do? What would Baltar do?

Sci Fi was remarkable. They didn’t give us any heartache. When I wrote the suicide bombers, the writing staff said, "You're going to have quite an argument," and I was girding myself for one, but they didn’t even question it. We had endless conversations about Tigh's eye. Can he have his eye back eventually? Do we really want to see him with an eyepatch for the rest of the show? How long are they going to be on their new caprica thing, can they get back to space. We never even discussed the suicide bombers.

Social commentary is something that has got lost along the way. A lot of filmed sci fi has been escapist for tits own sake. And I love the original STAR WARS, but it can't all be that. We have to connect with these people.

SD: What were some of your other sci fi touchstones?

RM: I grew up in the late seventies, so BLADE RUNNER. Also older sci fi, FORBIDDEN PLANET. I was a STAR TREK fan. I lived and breathed it as a child.

The new movie is a great ride. And the franchise needed a reboot. I've been saying that for years. It has had so many series. The continuity has become this vast complicated dense web that's an impediment to new viewers. You’d sit in the rooms on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, and you'd pitch a story, and then you'd have to stop and wonder, “does this fit in with the continuty, or does it conflict with something about the Romulans? It was sucking all the freshness out of, whether this fits in this complicated structure. I was saying for a long time, we need to call in an air strike.

SD: How were the webisodes brought into the story. Were the stories organically broken or broken separately?

RM: The idea to do them came from the network and the studio. No one had really been doing webisodes. THE OFFICE was starting to do little pieces of characters talking to camera, and the network and studio came to us with the idea to do webisodes. And we said, uh, okay. Nobody knew how to do this stuff. There were complicated technical questions. How do you budget it? How do you fit it into the shooting schedule. How do you coordinate it with the main unit? Which cast will participate. And this was before the WGA strike, so how much do you pay the writers.

We did the actual breaking of the story before third season premiere. Let’s just do a story between the two seasons -- backstories of some of these characters we're going to see, the suicide bomber, etc. We did the second group of webisodes a couple of years later. Let’s set up Gaeta for the mutiny arc.

It’s a strange format. I don’t like the runtime on it. I don't think it's a format that’s going to last. People are doing short webisodes right now because of technical limitations. I could be wrong. I just don't think ten years from now people will still be doing short webisodes.

(Somewhere around here, Sean Davidson opened the conversation up to questions from the floor.)

Q. How much did the original series inform the story? What was the value of taking a pre-existing series in your creative process?

RM: They came to me and said, we have this show in our library, we're looking for a new take. And Istarted thinking what I could do with it. I hadn’t seen it in 20 years. I found the premise very interesting and dark and challenging. An apocalyptic attack. Survivors who escape and are pursued --that’s a dark and intriguing concept.

But they were doing that on ABC in 1978. So the first thing they do
is they go to the casino planet. So they were trying to square a certain circle. They wanted to be escapist and fun and wacky and dark. I had the luxury to dispense with the wacky. I could discard everything I didn’t think work and make it more real, more truthful.

Q. How heavily are you involved in the merchandising?

RM: Not at all. I see the comic books and novels ahead of time, and I have people read them. But usually the time I find out about merchandise is when someone asks me to sign something.

Q. How did you decide who the four Cylons would be?

RM: We were breaking the Season Three finale, and the trial of Baltar didn't seem to be enough for a finale. I said I wish we had something, I don't know, like four characters start heading off and they all end up in a room and they go oh my god we’re Cylons. And we talked about that for a bit, and then we went through the list. It got winnowed down pretty fast. I didn't want it to be Adam and Laura because it was important they were human. Tigh worked because he was the most virulent Cylon-hater -- that's kind of delicious. Tyrol because he's the everyman, he's blue collar. Anders we didn't know much about, but he'd been in two resistance movements, and he's linked with Kara who has a destiny. And we came to Tory because she was a blank slate, and that would give us more freedom later.

And then I'd always wanted to do an episode of something with "All Along the Watchtower." And while we were talking about this episode someone said, maybe they hear music, and I said, "yes, and it's All Along the Watchtower, let's get the rights to that," and everyone laughed, and I said, "No really, let's get the rights to that." "But that's so random!” they said, and I said, yes, the lyrics are so cryptic we can read whatever we want into it.

Q. When you're putting together a writing room, what are you looking for. Is it a range of background? Do you want a wild card, or like minded people?

RM: The only thing I've been successful doing is having a mix of experienced hands and new hands. Everything else is theoretical. Ideally you'd have the character person, the dialogue person. But in reality it's a scramble for talent. You've been talking with someone about working together, and then you call, and they just signed to do a pilot. It’s really a crap shoot. There's no ideal balance. There's just who's terrible, and who's good.

[Note: if you listen to the podcasts, you'll be surprised how many of the BATTLESTAR writing room has served in the military, particularly the Navy and Air Force.]

Hope you enjoyed this transcription of the Master Class. My own interview with Ron Moore is coming up in this blog soon.

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Thanks for posting this, and your previous post links to a copy of the BSG bible. In your interview, I'll be interested to see whether you shared your thoughts about the finale. (I wouldn't expect you to.) It's interesting (and unfortunate) to note how, in this interview, several of the questions from the floor had been answered many times by RDM.

By Blogger David, at 1:01 PM  

I did not ask him about the finale because he's been asked about it already. I tried very hard not to ask him stuff he'd been asked before. Or any fanboy questions. Which should tell you about my incredible powers of self-control.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:43 PM  

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