GateWorld talks with Cath-Anne Ambrose
From tracking and distributing episode scripts through the various phases of production, to communicating with the show's Air Force advisors, to keeping the producers on track and on time, the multi-talented Cath-Anne Ambrose helps turn the wheels that make Stargate go!
In between all of this, Stargate SG-1's script coordinator has also found time to talk to GateWorld! Our thanks to Cath-Anne both for sharing a peek at her Stargate life with us, and for helping to create one of the best shows on television.
GateWorld: Tell us just what you do as the script coordinator for Stargate SG-1. What does a typical day look like?
Cath-Anne Ambrose: I roll in shortly after 9 a.m. (depending on what time my nanny shows up), go to the craft service area and get myself a coffee. Paul [Mullie] is as usual in the kitchen warming up the kettle, Joe [Mallozzi] comes in, power shake in tow. Then I go to our little cubby holes and collect fan mail, edited cuts of the show, dailies (which we now get on CD-ROM!) and other important documents ... and then try to find room on Robert Cooper's desk. I filter out all the travel memos because Robert doesn't care about travel memos. I add them to the his pile of tapes and papers that already spilling off his desk.
Soon after, the phone starts ringing. It's our lovely post production coordinator Jennifer Johnson (JJ) calling for the producers, trying to "remind" them of the various episodes that need attending to in the editing room. The calls from Post continue throughout the day, as frequently it's lunchtime and the producers have been tied up in meetings and haven't made it across the parking lot to start cutting.
Then I get a call from our lawyer, Carol Horn, with some concern or another about the script. Next, a big box arrives for me and it's full of TV Guides with RDA [Richard Dean Anderson] and Michael [Shanks] on the cover. Hurray! I distribute them to everyone.
I take a break and log onto www.gateworld.net, get caught up on the latest news affecting our lives. All the writers do this periodically thoughout the day.
Post calls again ... when is Robert coming over to cut?
I get an e-mail from the Gatecon organizers with a list of requests. Gatecon is such a blast. It's so much fun to see people dressed up in costumes. It constantly amazes me when I meet fans from Japan and Australia, who fly across the world to celebrate the show.
GW: We've heard jokes about all the different colors of paper that are used for scripts in different stages of the production process. Can you make sense of it all for us?
CA: Each studio has their very own color coding system. MGM's goes like this: WHITE (final draft), BLUE, PINK, YELLOW, GREEN, GOLDENROD, GREY, TAN ... DOUBLE BLUE. We go around the color chain but never repeat white. On each round of script revisions, we highlight the changes using asterisks so the cast and crew know exactly what has changed since the previous draft.
GW: You also keep the show's bible. Just what does it contain, exactly? Is it updated on a regular basis?
CA: The writer's bible is huge; it makes the "King James" look like a light read. It was originally intended as a tool for writers who want to pitch for the show. It in itself was a full-time job to maintain. Now we happily refer potential staffers/freelancers to www.gateworld.net and save a few hundred trees!
GW: What's your favorite episode of Stargate SG-1, and why?
CA: I have a few. I loved our 100th episode, "Wormhole X-Treme!", because so many of the actual crew were in the episode. We had loads of fun with it. It still makes me crack up when I see Joe as a grip and Robert as the übur-nerdy writer. Other favorites would be "The Curse" and "The Tomb." "The Fifth Race" was one of my older favorite episodes. I think Thor is "trés cool."
GW: Have you ever wanted to write a script yourself? What would it be about?
CA: I've written a few short, non-sci-fi related scripts and sold a treatment for an M.O.W. ["movie of the week"] to an American producer. I would love the opportunity to pitch for the show.
GW: What other shows do you watch that you think are particularly well-written? Any other sci-fi genre shows, specifically?
CA: I'm a little "sci-fied" out by the time I get home at night. My favorite show right now is Curb your Enthusiasm -- Larry David is brilliant. I also like crime shows such as The Shield and CSI. We are all big Soprano's fans here.
GW: Do you yourself read the various drafts of a script? Have there ever been any major changes from one draft to another?
CA: I read pretty much all the drafts that come through the story department, unless we are in a hurry -- then I throw it on the photocopier and race to get them to the writers. Usually the biggest changes come about after the first writer's draft. I distribute the initial draft only internally, within the story department. Then all the writers read it and gather to give "notes." This is usually a stressful time for the writer, as they are not sure yet as to how their work will be received by the other writers, and in particularly the executive producer. If Robert says "What were you thinking?", that is not a good sign.
Some scripts change dramatically, and others very little. There are numerous reasons. Some are practical, such as scheduling and availability of actors, and locations. Other changes come after suggestions from RDA or Michael Greenburg. Other times they do a huge rewrite to specifically tailor dialogue to a character after we have cast an actor. An episode that you will see in the near future, "Heroes" parts one and two, was heavily re-written by Robert after Saul Rubineck was cast.
Sometimes there are clearance issues that come into play which force us to change character names, props, or signage. An example I had today is that the name of Carter's love interest in the upcoming episode "Chimera" did not clear with our lawyers, because there is an actual person living in Denver with the same name. Now every scene will have to be changed to reflect the new name change. Then, of course, there are the Air Force notes that usually affect minor changes.
Most importantly, however, if the actual writing in a script is not as good as it needs to be to go into production, that script will be heavily rewritten by one of the executive producers. Most freelance scripts are heavily rewritten. The person who receives writing credit is not necessarily the person who did the bulk of the actual writing.
GW: How big of an influence do the actors have over their characters, both in actions and in dialogue? Do the actors often make adjustments on-set that you have to keep track of?
CA: The actors frequently will tweak their dialogue on set. Sometimes it creates a problem further down the road in the editing room. This could be a situation where something was a set-up that would pay off later on in the episode. If a character omits a line that was key to something down the line, that can create difficulties.
GW: You're also the liaison for the show's military advisors. What sorts of things have you had to change in scripts, or ask them about?
CA: We consult with the U.S. Air Force entertainment liaison for everything. They do a script review of every episode, for accuracy. They give us information on props, set decoration, wardrobe and dialogue. We have a new liaison who is just great -- Captain L'Esperance is a joy to work with. She's a young woman and quite brilliant. We take their notes seriously, as we want to portray every situation as accurately as we can. If we don't, we will get letters from military folks pointing out any oversights!
Recently I was fortunate to be invited to a dinner with the chief of the American Air Force, General Jumper [Air Force Chief of Staff], and his wife when they came to the set. [General Jumper appears as himself in the Season Seven finale, "The Lost City" - Ed.] It was such an honor to meet Mr. and Mrs. Jumper. He was actually very down to Earth and his wife was quite interesting. I have huge amounts of respect for all of the U.S. military folks I've met through the show. Working on Stargate has taught me a lot about that lifestyle and the dedication these men and women have.
GW: Many fans of the show are also aspiring writers. What advice would you have for them on how to get a spec script in front of the right person at Stargate?
CA: I have probably had hundreds, if not thousands of phone calls and scripts sent to me since I began working here. The only possible hope anyone has in getting past the "gatekeeper" (that's me) and getting to the people who actually have some power (that's not me) is to get a literary agent. We don't have the manpower (or woman power) that shows like Star Trek had, where they would have three full-time script readers plowing through stacks of spec scripts, looking for a gem.
GW: What are the show's writers and producers like? Any fun to work with?
CA: First off, let me say that Robert Cooper has done a brilliant job this year running the show in what has been a crazy year for scheduling.
The writers are hilarious. I think of them like brothers. My favorite time of day is when we all eat lunch and watch the dailies. Lunch is the best thing about working on Stargate. We have incredible caterers! When we don't shoot on the lot we send out for food. The writers (particularly Brad [Wright]) love Swiss chalet chicken (it's a Canadian thing!). Joseph is a connoisseur of all things culinary. Damian [Kindler] is on one of those gluten-free diets that makes life for our poor P.A., Gregory, just hell. Peter [DeLuise] likes the high-protein diet. Paul eats a lot of ribs. Robert is fairly low-maintenance.
They are all really strong distinctive personalities that complement and blend very well together. It's taken a while to find the right mix. They all have individual strengths that they bring to the table. They are all total characters. I think that the producers set a really great vibe from the top down, which makes the crew happy -- and that's why many people have stayed for so many years.