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Directing the Future
GateWorld recently returned from a trip to the set of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis in Vancouver, British Columbia, where we chatted with writer, producer, and now director Robert C. Cooper! As the show-runner of SG-1, co-creator of Atlantis, and one of the executive producers for both, Cooper is one of the top two men who keep the Stargate universe running. Needless to say, as fans of his work we had a great time talking about the past, present, and future of the two series and the franchise.

Cooper joined SG-1 as a staff writer in the show's first season, and was later promoted to story editor. He worked his way through the ranks to executive producer, taking the reigns of Stargate SG-1 in Season Eight when Brad Wright devoted the majority of his time to the spin-off. Last year, he made his directorial debut with "Crusade" -- and when we spoke with him he was fresh from the set of "Sateda," the upcoming Atlantis episode he also wrote and directed.

In the interview, Cooper candidly discusses rebooting the show in Season Nine, and how the Ori will shape Season Ten in very dangerous ways. He also talks about what Vala brings to the show as a permanent member of the team, his intentions for "Sateda," the future of the Stargate franchise, and more. Beware of some minor spoilers for Season Ten, specifically the season premiere, "Flesh and Blood."

GateWorld's interview with Robert Cooper is available in MP3 audio format for easy listening, and is 33 minutes long. It is also transcribed below. You can also download the interview to your MP3 player and take GateWorld with you!

GateWorld: For I'm Darren Sumner, and this is David Read. We're here with Mr. Robert. C. Cooper. Thanks for having us over today!

Robert C. Cooper: You're welcome!

GW: Tell us your overall impression of the new season of SG-1. With Vala entering the mix full-time, there's even more change for SG-1 this season.

RCC: Yeah, it's not that much of a change. She was obviously a big part of Season Nine, and we all loved having her and loved the dynamic she brought to the team. The one difference is we get to have her and Carter together this year, which is proving to be a lot of fun. Everybody is having a great time.

I think we always felt that there was a four-person team and there wasn't really room for other people. And I guess we were wrong! [Laughter]

It's been a challenge to try and balance the storylines between that many characters. And, of course, the other aspect is the other person is General Landry -- really five leads on the show, and now six. You want to make sure everyone gets their time in the limelight, and I think we've done a pretty good job of that so far.

We're also not just throwing Vala on the team. One of the things that we all agreed we loved about her character was the fact that she's a bit of an outsider with an attitude, and that that attitude doesn't necessarily fit right in immediately. And if you just suddenly had her change her personality and join the team and be accepted, it wouldn't feel right. It would probably not be nearly as interesting as keeping her character as a bit of a wildcard.

GW: She may be able to get things done, though, that the others can't.

With Vala Mal Doran (Claudia Black) joining the team in Season Ten, one thing is certain: SG-1 will never be the same.
RCC: Yes. In the ways that, I think, in early seasons Teal'c was an unknown quantity, a bit of a wildcard factor in the show. You never knew when his past was going to come back on the team, or what he was going to do in any situation -- go off and kill somebody, or take his own agenda into account. And the way, I think, Ronon brings that dynamic to the Atlantis team, that's what Vala helps to bring to SG-1 -- a certain unpredictability in any given situation.

There's a great episode early on, in which she has to undergo a psychiatric evaluation just to be able to participate in the S.G.C. program. And it's a lot of fun moments in that. That was actually Claudia's idea. She said, "Wouldn't it be great if Vala had to have a psych evaluation?"

GW: How did you approach planning Season Ten during the off-season? To what degree is this a matter of looking at the next 20 episodes and planning the big brush strokes, versus just brainstorming individual story ideas and having it come together that way?

RCC: Yeah, I don't remember if we talked about this -- I have said it before. Season Nine was about wiping the slate clean, sort of, and introducing the Ori and kind of preparing us for what was going to happen, which is that they were going to invade and kind of take over. The whole goal from Season Nine moving forward was to bring the series back to where it was when it started in Season One. And that was to put us at a tremendous disadvantage -- wipe the slate clean, make us the underdogs again.

Because we had gotten to the point where we won every time. We killed Goa'ulds, Replicators at will. The challenge wasn't there any more. And we wanted to create bad guys that would now be as big a challenge as the Goa'uld were when we first opened the Stargate. So, Season Nine was very much not only just about introducing the new members of the team, but also the new bad guys and how that was going to work.

And Season Ten is very much about the bad guys kind of executing the plan, the promise -- coming through on what they said would come to pass, which is that they're going to come in and take over our galaxy.

GW: The "Day of Reckoning."

RCC: Yeah.

GW: The final moments of "Camelot" certainly up the ante.

RCC: Yeah, I thought it was as impactful a 10-minute sequence as we've ever done on the show. And hopefully [it] was what it was intended to be, which is a great, ominous harbinger of the foe we're up against.

Fighting the Good Fight: Season Ten will be about the Ori invaders sweeping through our galaxy, Cooper says.
So Season Ten is about the Ori sweeping through our galaxy, and us kind of having to start from scratch again and finding technology and resources and allies that we can use to fight against them. It puts us back at square one, so to speak.

And, you know, we're also dealing with our characters on an individual episode basis, and trying to expand those characters and move them forward from where they are. We're still getting to know Landry and Mitchell, and now Vala. Some great opportunities there to just figure out who they are -- take a breath from the bigger, global arc of the season and tell some fun character stories, too.

GW: So with all this set-up with the new characters and with the Ori finally here, finally on the war path -- as a writer what does this offer to you that you didn't have before?

RCC: Just a challenge for our hero. And to write something new. When you've written a show for as long as we have, you have to change it in order to keep it fresh for yourself, as well. Obviously having new bad guys and new obstacles for your characters to overcome makes it more interesting.

Also, the old adage in any mythical sort of genre or piece is that your hero is only as good as your bad guy is bad. So by working on your bad guy and making them as intimidating as you possibly can, you're going to elevate your heroes. And I think that's going to be the case with the show -- seeing their struggle.

The other new element that we have, of course, is the new figurehead for the bad guy, which we sort of had hesitated to reveal and sort of built up. And that's going to be a lot of fun. It doesn't really happen until maybe the second half of the first half of the season. (We always think of things in two halves around here, because of the way SCI FI airs the show.)

We deal with sort of the fallout of "Camelot" and the battle, and the insurgence of the Ori in our galaxy. And then we take a break for a few episodes and deal with some other hanging issues. And then we take an even bigger break for our two-hundredth episode, which is going to be a giant departure from the normal goings-on around here. And then, towards seven, eight, nine, ten, we start to get back into the arc of the Ori story and where that's going, leading into our mid-season two-parter.

GW: The primary antagonist is kind of switching from the Priors and the Doci to Adria.

RCC: Yes.

GW: Will we see the Doci ever again? Are there plans to keep him in the loop, or are we switching to Adria completely?

While the Doci (Julian Sands, center) represents the Ori in their home galaxy, the ascended beings have someone else in mind to lead their campaign in the Milky Way.
RCC: The Doci is kind of the leader of the Priors who does his work from the Ori galaxy. He's kind of the head there. Adria is the, basically one step higher than him, but equal in terms of her role in our galaxy. She's the one who the Ori have sent to lead the armies in their crusade.

GW: The Priors in Season Nine were really the foretellers of the doom and gloom, the prophets. What is the role that the Priors have now?

RCC: It's the same, basically. They're still the missionaries. The difference is we're going to see a little more of the warriors this year, the people who are actually doing the fighting. We got a little bit of a taste of them in "Crusade" last year. And we'll see a little more of them this year, a little more about them actually doing the fighting.

GW: Do you worry about them being two-dimensional? They're devotion is so pure, it's like the Borg with assimilation.

RCC: Yeah, I actually -- I wrote "Crusade" because I wanted to make them not two-dimensional. To me, it was interesting to develop them as a character -- not just Tomin, but Tomin is a representation of them. I think that it's very interesting to look at someone with the strength of belief who's willing to fight for what they want to fight for. It just happens to be different than what we -- [Laughter] that's Brad Wright making faces in the window, for anybody who's [wondering].

It's different from what our agenda is. And I think that type of single-mindedness certainly exists in our world. It's something we see go on around us. I think it's important for us to try and understand why people want to go to war with us, or blow up our buildings, or our airplanes. I don't think that that single-minded devotion makes someone two-dimensional.

I think it's more that I was trying to make those warriors more than just people in suits. Because it's science fiction, and because it's far more black and white than our real world is. And we tend to paint with primary colors and archetypes [more] than we do true reality. And it is, ultimately, just entertainment. But we were trying to get to something a little bit more than just people in wardrobe as warriors -- that, in our case, the people who are following [the] Ori, we perceive them to be mistaken in their beliefs.

But there's a really interesting scene in "Flesh and Blood," the first episode, in which young Adria, at the age of about eight, basically says to Vala, "I don't know what the Ancients have told you, but it's a lie. We do ascend our followers. They're the ones who are sapping energy from you so that they can get enough power to kill us." Well, I mean, Vala doesn't believe her because she's on our side. And we don't believe her and she's the bad guy, and she's saying the wrong thing. But who's to say she isn't right? Why don't we believe her? Who is right?

That's one of the things about when you're talking about religion and belief, and gods -- there's really no winner to the argument. And that's the problem, is when people try and solve that argument by killing each other. And that's where I think we have to draw the line in our society and say there should be a more civilized way of having that dialogue than taking up arms.

Those are just some of the issues I think we were trying to deal with the in mythology of the show.

Tomin (Tim Guinee) represents the Ori warriors, written to be not just faceless armies, but people deeply committed to fighting and dying for what they believe in.
GW: I think it's a really interesting twist on the way that the relationship with the Jaffa and the Goa'uld used to be, which is the Goa'uld demonstrate their power and so try and convince the Jaffa that they are gods. But then there's still the enslavement factor. The worshippers of the Ori don't have the enslavement factor; that's almost replaced with a true-to-the-heart, fanatical devotion.

RCC: Yes. And an unwitting slavery, in a way. Because while the Goa'uld never actually took anything spiritually and physically from the Jaffa, they had them obviously subjugated. But in the case of the Ori followers, they're being used as unwitting batteries, to an extent -- sapping their energy and life force to power the Ori.

I think it's even -- I mean, I don't know how you quantify those things, necessarily -- but to me it feels more sinister.

GW: It's much more personal when it's your soul.

RCC: Yeah.

GW: You've spent a lot of time in recent weeks on "Sateda," which you both wrote and directed.

RCC: Yes! Craziness!

GW: Tell us a little about that one and the decisions that you made as a director that make this unique to Stargate.

RCC: Well, as you know my first directing foray was last year on "Crusade." And that was a bit of a drama. There was a little bit of action in it, but not much. It was mostly a little morality play, and a lot of conversations between two people -- which was great. But I intentionally did something that was a little more ... I don't want to say "easy," but a little less challenging in terms of the production side of things. It was my first shot out as a director.

And then I came up with this idea to delve into Ronon's backstory a little bit. And, you know, it's an action piece. It's a lot of action in this show. And that was intentional for me, to have a go at something a little different as a director. I wanted to try something that I hadn't done. Obviously, it's about setting up challenges for yourself to keep it interesting.

And I certainly set myself up for a challenge on that! We shot for a lot more -- let's just say it's very nice to be executive producer of the show as well, because you get to play with all the toys in the sandbox. I got to do a lot of things that our other regular directors don't get to do. And I owe a great deal of gratitude and thanks to Brad, as well, because he does oversee Atlantis to a large extent and was very supportive of my taking a great deal of money out of the Atlantis coffers to pay for "Sateda!" And it's put him in a big hole, and he's going to have to write some smaller shows to make up for it.

Actor Jason Momoa ("Ronon Dex") gets a chance to break loose and shine in "Sateda," which explores his backstory ... and offers him a lot of action scenes.
But he came in, and I was really worried when I turned in that first script because I knew how big it was, and what it was going to do to production to try and have to pull it off. And I said, "Look, I know it's huge, and I'll cut it down. I have to pull it back for sure. But I just wanted everyone to see what my first vision of the story was going to be." And he read it and came into my office and said, "No, I think we should do all of this."

So obviously I really appreciated that opportunity. And we did! We did it all.

GW: Everyone's been talking about how such an epic, motion picture-scale this episode is.

RCC: Well ... let's be fair. I mean, movies spend $80 million, $90 million, $100 million, and we spent $2 [million] and some. And they shoot for a hundred days, and we shot for ten.

It is very big for the scale of the type of show we normally do. I'd say it probably has twice as many shots in it than a normal episode of Atlantis. And I owe that to the crew, who did an amazing job of basically stepping up -- in large part because I'm also executive producer of the show [Laughter] -- and tried to accomplish what I was challenging them to accomplish, which was to do a lot more shots than we normally do for a day.

And just bigger stuff. I mean, we were doing big, big stunts -- four or five big stunts, and special effects explosions, and a lot of gunfire. And then a lot of locations. We shot in some -- we had a village built out in Surrey that normally would be all that we would do for one episode. And then we also tricked-up this hospital to look like it had been sort of in a post-apocalyptic world. And then we spent three days shooting at a location over here in downtown Vancouver where they used to shoot Dark Angel, and created a whole post-apocalyptic city there.

So it was a big thing, yeah. It's not a feature film, but it was big for Stargate, certainly. And I haven't seen it all cut together -- that's my next big challenge is to make sure it's all going to work. I think everyone was really excited about the fact that we were trying some big things.

GW: Could Jason have been any more tickled when he first received this?

RCC: No, I honestly -- I'm sure there are no more excited kids on Christmas morning opening presents than he was when he first came in to talk about that script.

And you know what? He was a trooper through all of it. He sold out and basically nearly killed himself to make it great. Most of the stuff you see with him in it is him. Very, very, very few shots in which he didn't do his own stunts -- and had the bruises and bumps to show for it.

GW: Is there something about the character of Ronon or his backstory that particularly appealed to you? You don't get to go over and play in the Atlantis sandbox very often.

The writers plan to focus on moments to build the relationships between the main characters in Season Three of Stargate Atlantis.
RCC: Well, I wrote the first script that he appeared in. And I think I had a sense of what that character was. And I feel like I wanted him to be more than just the "muscle" who grunted every now and then on the show. And I'm not saying that's what Jason was. He certainly, I think, had a character and has a great deal of ability as an actor. But we hadn't really done a show that featured him.

And he's got an incredible ability -- not just as a physical presence, but as an actor, as well. And I think you're going to see that in this show, too. It's not all blowing things up and running and shooting ... although it's mostly blowing things up and running and shooting! We do stop to pause for a moment now and then, I think you'll be pretty surprised by what he's capable of in those moments.

You know, this story, as much as it's about Ronon running around in the destroyed streets of his former planet, is about the team. One of the things that we did at the beginning of the season on Atlantis is sort of sat back and took stock and said, "OK, we've done two seasons. Where are we? Where is this show at? What's working about it, and what's not?" And one of the things we thought we could do better was create the sense of camaraderie and relationships between the team, and that we felt we were getting the action-adventure part of the show right, but that the team itself, the chemistry still hadn't quite clicked the same way it had on SG-1.

And, of course, you're always comparing eighth, ninth season to Season Two. So you don't want to be unfair. But I think we as writers did things in the early years of SG-1 that galvanized those relationships. And without being corny about it, we wanted to create moments that would be touchstone moments for fans to harken back to when they look back at Atlantis.

I know there were scenes that people just sort of picked out. Like I remember in -- not even really one of my favorite episodes of SG-1 -- but in "Need," when Daniel was going through his withdrawal from the sarcophagus and it had that moment where O'Neill basically held on to him and they had that real cathartic moment together, fans point to that as being a great moment in their relationship. And I felt like we needed to have more of those kinds of interactions between the Atlantis team. I think that they were and we were, to a certain extent, taking for granted the aspects of their relationships with each other that maybe the fans weren't quite getting or connecting with.

So, again, as much as the story is about Ronon running around and being chased by Wraith and killing Wraith, it's also about the rest of the team having developed a relationship with him to the point where they were willing to go to any length to try and save him. And that plays in to a lot of the intervening moments in the script and in the story.

GW: Let me ask you kind of a specific question about the ships that we have on SG-1 now. The growing fleet of starships is becoming a pretty prominent part of both series. Do you ever fear, as you're sitting in a writer's meeting, that there's a line that you have to watch for where if you cross that line at some point the show is not "Stargate" any more?

RCC: I'm aware of it, yeah. In fact, I've just said in recent meetings -- you balance certain costs as producers. There's all these factors. In Atlantis we actually don't have a location gate, a physical location gate. Every time we go out on location it's a visual effect. And so that factors into how often you see it on location, and stuff like that.

"Nothing says 'alien planet' like location Stargate," says Cooper.
The same goes for SG-1, where we have a location gate but it costs X amount of dollars to put it up. And you need a location that is suitable to put it up in. And then you start factoring in, "Well, should we see it as a visual effect?" And then, if we do, what type of shot can you do -- because when you do visual effects the cost goes up exponentially when you start to move the camera.

So all of that factors into a lot of your decisions about things like seeing the gate. And we just decided in a meeting that yes, we needed to early on this season put up the location gate, show it, show it off, do a scene in front of it. Because nothing says "alien planet" like location Stargate. And at the core, this show is still called Stargate SG-1 -- it's not Daedalus, or Odyssey, or whatever.

However, I still think those aspects of the show are fun, and that it is a natural progression for us, as Earth learns more and gains technologies and allies, that everyone else seems to have ships, so why shouldn't we? And I think there's a nice balance, to be honest with you, between what we call our "ship shows" ... And even our ship shows sometimes tend to involve the Stargate, like "Off the Grid" last year, which was you could say an Odyssey show, but was all about Baal stealing Stargates.

And I still think the Stargate itself, at the end of the day, is a much more valuable commodity in the world of Stargate than any one ship is. If you were playing a Stargate game and you were to attach value to it I think you'd probably have a Stargate higher on your list than a ship in terms of what you put in your pocket.

I love the ships. I think they're cool, and I think ship shows are cool. I don't think we're ever in danger of becoming Star Trek, to shoot the white elephant in the room.

GW: When SG-1 continues on after this season, and Atlantis continues on, what do you want Season Ten and Season Three to say to viewers?

RCC: Well, I want Season Three to say that Stargate Atlantis is its own show, and that it's got a lot of legs, and that it's got a big future. And that these characters are as wonderful together and as much a team as SG-1 ever was.

As far as SG-1 goes ... it's Season Ten! Who knows? We're in bonus land here. It's a thrill to be on the air, and it's all icing on the cake from here on in.

Having been a key person involved in kind of re-energizing the show in Season Nine, obviously I want to see that little baby continue. I want to see that live on a little longer. But again, if Season Ten were the last season, it's hard to say it was a failure.

GW: Certainly we're all hoping for renewal for Season Eleven and Season Four. But beyond that, what do you see as the future of the franchise?

With new cast members and a new storyline, the future looks good for SG-1 -- though what follows after the TV series is still anyone's guess.
RCC: Well, let me just say there's no one, specific plan. That always seems to change. There's a lot of interest in the franchise, and it's not going away. What you see first ... I would not even be willing to bet on that. I don't even want to give you odds on it.

There's some very interesting, very competent people putting together a massive multi-player game. Contrary to any other games that have been referenced in the past, I think this one will be worth getting excited about. There's always going to be talk of movies and other series. Again, which you see first, I don't know. Roll the dice. You'll see something, though!

GW: Is there an advantage to The Powers That Be to always keep the two productions running, whatever those two productions are? Or is there a chance we might get back to one series at a time?

RCC: Yeah, multiple productions is always better. It always makes much better business sense, because you're amortizing all kinds of things over two productions or three productions.

The plan that we kind of accidentally fell into here has proven to be a very good one.

GW: My last question: Are you still having fun? Are you still being challenged?

RCC: Yeah, I'm having a great time! The directing has certainly been a great, invigorating aspect of my creative energies. But I still like writing the show. I still love the characters and I want to see it -- it's like reading a book, and why would you put it down before the end? In some ways I want to help tell the end of the story.

And so I'm still waiting for that moment to come. We're obviously not there yet. But, yeah, I'm still enjoying participating in helping to tell that story. I still write episodes that I can't wait to see, as a fan. And I read the other writers' episodes and I'm excited about seeing those come through production. So, yeah, I'm as much a fan as anybody else -- of both series.

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