In case you’ve been under a rock recently, today is the day the new Stargate Universe series premieres on SyFy (my DVR is set, is yours?) To gear up for today’s debut, we just finished our Stargate SG-1 Watchathon where we watched the first four seasons of SG-1. Joe Mallozzi has been heavily involved with the Stargate franchise since season 4 of SG-1. He’s been a producer and writer for SG-1, Atlantis and now Universe, he also blogs regularly over at his site, where he runs a monthly book reading session, among other cool stuff.
As means to help kick-off Universe, Joe agreed to be interviewed by us.
SF Signal: Before we get into the science fiction related questions, I have a show production question. What is the difference between producer, co-produce, executive producer and consulting producer, each of each you have done at different points in your career?
Joe Mallozzi: The truth is, there’s every difference and no difference between the titles. It really depends on the production and, quite frankly, the producer. For example, while Paul and I are consulting producers on SGU, we’re in almost every day, take part in all story meetings from pitches to spinning sessions, and weigh in on all aspects of production from scripts to cuts. Conversely, it’s fairly common in the industry to award someone a Producer credit as part of the deal-making process, more of a perk than a position of any real power. For the record though, Paul and I started on the Stargate franchise as co-producers and worked our way up as producers, co-executive producers, and, finally, executive producers (and show runners for Atlantis‘s final two seasons). Along the way, we took on more responsibility until we were eventually running our own episodes (overseeing them from concept, through prep, production, and post). This isn’t ayptical of television where writers will often work their way up the ranks of a production – but very unlike film where the writer is everyone’s bitch. I should also add that Paul and I were very fortunate to be working for Brad Wright and Robert Cooper who were always incredibly supportive and happy to reward us with more responsibility provided we were able to prove ourselves.
SFS: How did you come to work on SG-1?
JM: Our agent hooked us up. He informed us that Stargate: SG-1 was looking for writers. Paul and I watched the show, read the scripts, and pitched. Of those five pitches, we sold two. The first, “Scorched Earth”, was the script that landed us a staff position. The second, “Window of Opportunity”, was actually our first produced script for the series.
SFS: You started work on SG-1 after it had been running for 3 seasons. What challenges did you face when joining the series?
JM: One of the toughest things to do is pitch for an established series. The longer a show runs, the more backstory is established, the more history between the characters, so prospective writers find themselves having to play catch up. A story idea too similar to one already produced or a notion that runs contrary to character or show mythology can be a deal-breaker. You not only need to come up with some good ideas, but you need to come up with some good ideas that demonstrate you’ve done your homework and are familiar with the series. One of my favorite freelance pitch sessions involved a newbie writer who pitched us a story in which “SGi go to a planet and get separated from Tee-alc. When they head back through the gate, they find themselves stuck in a dimension between India and Pakistan and have to avert an impending war.” Yeah, well first of all, that’s not how the gate works. Second of all, his name is Teal’c, not Tee-alc. And, finally, that’s SG-1 not SG-i! Thanks for stopping by. Our assistant will validate your parking.
SFS: Did you have any ideas what you wanted to do with SG-1 story wise? What other goals did you have for the show and did you achieve them?
JM: At the beginning of each year, we would sit down and discuss a general arc for the upcoming season. One of the great things about SG-1 was that it lent itself a variety of stories – arc-driven vs. stand-alones, off-world vs. Earth-based, dark mythology vs. comedic outings, etc. The sandbox was wide open. We just had to find a spot and dig.
SFS: Universe has a very different feel to it than the other Stargate series. Was this a conscious decision to make Universe that much different? What other plans do you have for the show?
JM: There was a definite conscious decision to make SGU different in terms of the storytelling, both visually and creatively. The intent was to build on what had come before (some 15 years of Stargate history) but ultimately develop a show that first-timers to the franchise could enjoy. And I think we’ve been very successful in that respect. As for future plans for the show – Brad and Robert have a “big picture” idea of where they want the series to go. The writers also know what we would like to accomplish for the show’s second season (pending a pick-up). Plot-driven stories and arcs aside, crucial to the succcess of the show are the characters, their backgrounds and respective evolutions over the course of the series.
SFS: Do you have an overarching storyline for Universe or an idea where you want the show to go mythology wise? I’d like to see it avoid the “we’re making stuff up” approach that ruined the later seasons of THE X-FILES.
JM: Very early on in the production process, when we were first spinning stories, Brad and Robert pitched out the overarching storyline, answering many of the big questions we had going in. So, yes, we know where we’re headed.
SFS: When the time comes, as it always does, will you be able to end the show to your satisfaction? In other words, do you think you’ll be able to end with a sense of closure or is there the possibility that fans may be left wondering?
JM: I think we’ll definitely be able to end the show to our satisfaction. You look at the preceding Stargate shows – SG-1 and Atlantis - both of which offered up creatively satisfying series-enders, one planned, the other unplanned. In the case of SG-1, we knew the series was drawing to a close and elected to end with the notion that SG-1 was still out there, heading off on their off-world adventures. In the case of Atlantis, we didn’t know we were going to be canceled while writing the final episode but, in retrospect, “Enemy at the Gate” worked well as a series finale, concluding with Atlantis’s return to Earth.
SFS: Can you give us a hint as to what types of stories we’ll see in Universe? Is there anything that sticks out in your mind as being really cool or funny?
JM: One of the great things about the Stargate franchise is that it offers so much freedom from a creative standpoint. In it’s first season, SGU will focus on survival, exploration, discovery, and adventure. Strange worlds, bizarre alien life forms, celestial objects and phenomena – they’ll all be a big part of Stargate: Universe and yet at the heart of the stories are our characters and the effects these encounters will have on them. Off the top of my head, there are many highlights in the show’s first season, from favorite episodes (“Life”, “Time”, and “Divided” at this point), incredible visuals (“Light”, “Space”) and outstanding performances (from every cast member).
SFS: Most SF shows don’t seem to reach out to the SF community and bring in people with non-TV SF experience onto the creative staff. Babylon 5 had Harlan Ellison and it’s nice to see Universe has author John Scalzi as a creative consultant. Can you talk a little about what he does, what he’s brought to the show as far as ideas and how did you decide that John would be a good fit?
JM: I read John’s Old Man’s War several years ago and loved it. It was well-written, clever, character-driven SF with a wonderful sense of humor. I recommended it to several of my colleagues, among them fellow voracious reader and Stargate Exec. Producer Brad Wright who loved it as well. After SGU got the green light, we discussed the idea of bringing John aboard as a creative consultant. We made him an offer and he accepted. He’s got a amazing scifi mind, is a terrific writer, possesses a great story and character sense, and, most importantly, his sense of humor is a great fit. Since January, John has been reading and offering his input on all scripts.
SFS: Let’s move out of the realm of TV and into written SF. You’ve been a writer for TV for awhile, but just recently you wrote a story for the anthology With Great Power by Lou Anders. What made you decide to branch out and how did you get involved with Lou Anders?
JM: To be honest, I wrote the short story, “Downfall”, because Lou was kind enough to ask me. He knew I was a comic book fan and was familiar with my writing from my various meandering blog posts (incidentally, he was also the very first guest of my online Book of the Month Club, taking the time to field reader questions about his fantastic Fast Forward 1 anthology), so he offered me the opportunity. I was, of course, thrilled to be asked and wasted no time getting started. In the end, the story was a little longer than I envisioned and took A LOT longer than I had planned (taking a full eight months to complete as opposed to say, the average script that takes me about two weeks to write), but I’m pleased with the result. And, above all, pleased that Lou is pleased.
SFS: Can we expect a full blown novel from Joe Mallozzi in the not too distant future?
JM: Are you kidding? It took me eight months to write my first short story. It’ll probably take me three years to complete an actual novel. That said, I do have a fairly detailed SF idea I’d love to tackle in prose form sometime in the not too distant future.
SFS: You’ve been involved with writing genre stories for TV as far back as The Lost World and Big Wolf On Campus. Were you a SF/F fan before you began your writing career? Are there any SF/F books or movies that have influenced you during your writing career? What made you go into writing for television?
JM: I was an avid reader when I was young. Back in elementary school, while my classmates were playing hockey, I was at home reading Asimov, Clarke, and the complete works of William Shakespeare. As my life grew increasingly busier, I found that I had less and less time for reading. That changed about five years ago when I decided that I was spending far too much time on my work. (One of the most frustrating things about being a writer is that, unfortunately, you can’t simply switch your brain off at 5:00 p.m. and go into relax mode. If you’re working on something, you’re working on it 24/7.) I needed a hobby and decided to rediscover my love of reading. In truth, it was a compromise for someone who feels inherently guilty whenever he is not working or accomplishing something. Reading was something I enjoyed but, at the same time (I argued) could inform me as well. And so, a writer working on an SF show, I concentrated on genre fiction, mainly science fiction but some fantasy and horror as well.
As for specific books influencing me? Not really. I think reading in general – novels, short stories, or comic books – steered me toward my career choice. I ended up in television through hard work, the right connections, and dumb luck.
SFS: Between being a producer (of any type) and a writer, which position do you enjoy doing the most, and why?
JM: Writing is an incredibly frustrating and painful process (as most any writer will tell you) so “in the moment” I prefer producing – overseeing all aspects of production, making creative decisions, dealing with cast and crew. That said, however, there is nothing more satisfying than finishing a script or, better yet, watching a finished episode. At the end of the day, the episodes I wrote (not necessarily produced) are the ones in which I’m most proud.
SFS: Out of all the episodes you’ve had a hand in writing, which one is your favorite? What’s your favorite non-writer episode?
JM: I’m hardpressed to narrow down an absolute favorite. I’ve been with the franchise for 10 years and written/co-written 60+ scripts. Still, if I had to choose – probably “Ripple Effect” (SG-1). By “favorite non-writer episode”, I assume you’re talking about a script I didn’t write – in which case I’ll go with “Time”, an Stargate: Universe episode Robert Cooper wrote, directed, and produced for the show’s first season.
SFS: If given the opportunity, would you like to develop your own series for TV? What might that look like?
JM: I’ve been kicking around an SF series idea for quite a while now. I have a fairly detailed premise, characters, and story arcs that I’ve developed over the past few years. My writing partner and I have even written the pilot – however, because of our commitment to the Stargate francise, its been something that we’ve had to place on the backburner. Still, while it may not be hitting the small screen anytime soon, it will have life as a comic book series that should hit the shelves sometime in 2010.
SFS: (Reader submitted) – One of the things that’s always impressed me about the Stargate universe is how we gradually accrete technological advances (The various types of battleship, the 302s and the Pegasus Bridge all spring to mind). Is this something that just happens organically or do you have a plan for showing how the SGC is gradually moving humanity towards something like the singularity?
JM: I’d love to say we had all planned out but, truthfully, these technological acquisitions and developments came about as result of the show’s lengthy run. There are just so many times we can encounter alien technologies and allow them to slip through our fingers. I mean, sure, it does happen. You heist an alien spaceship and you forget were you parked it or you leave it running and somebody boosts it while you’re grabbing yourself a snack. But after a while, you begin to look incredibly inept.
SFS: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close?
JM: To all you t.v. watchers out there: read more! To all you readers out there: watch more Stargate!
Indeed! I’d like to thank Joe for taking time out of his very busy schedule to chat with us. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch me some Universe.