Steering The Battlestar: Michael Rymer @ Digital Hollywood – Summer 09

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A little series called “Battlestar Galactica” redefined what TV can be in terms of entertainment vs. social commentary. One of the underrated architects of this cultural milestone is the director of most of its episodes: Michael Rymer.

Sitting down for a conversation at Digital Hollywood as a last minute addition, Rymer (who has not done many of these) offered a grail in sea of treasures for he holds part of the key to the success of this cross cultural milestone.

To start from the beginning, Rymer was born in Melbourne Australia and like most would-be filmmakers started off making Super 8 films and eventually went to USC Film School in Los Angeles. His first film was about two scitzophrenics that fall in love. Filmmaking was a process but he wanted to have a life along the way. He had some heat from this first project and a gangster movie he did for Miramax. Rymer had also wanted to remake “Dune”. He thought the David Lynch original wasn’t very good. He also wanted to make “The Vampire Lestat”, the sequel to “Interview With A Vampire” but ended up making “Queen Of The Damned” instead. He says that the eventual film that transpired wasn’t the one he set out to make. He said he learned some big lessons making that film specifically to fight the battles as you go.

After that, Rymer was offered a pilot called “The Haunted” with Matthew Fox (before he hit it big on “Lost”). Then he got the miniseries script for “Battlestar Galactica”. He read it in one four-hour sitting. He says the genesis had David Eick originally involved who then brought in Ron Moore who came up with a way to write and pitch it. He said that the conversation constantly on set revolved around digital media but that it always came back to character and getting that right first. Certain characters weren’t supposed to become as important as they did. One of the reasons he said that the show was so creatively successful was that there was a lot of listening going on. Although he didn’t like the experience of being a series writer, he learned on “Battlestar” to see the perspective a little more from the writer’s point of view.

For all intents and purposes, Rymer sees “Galatica” essentially as a space opera which by definition is melodrama set on spaceships. The moment, he says, you ignore the issue of gravity, it becomes a contrivance. You have to accept the reality. In this case, the buoyancy was held by the allegory for war.

The company tackled every issue they could and Rymer says that they got brownie points for just trying to do it. They couldn’t get away with half the stuff they did. The tougher the world environment, according to Rymer, the more people want to escape. There are many good films about Iraq, he says, that no one wanted to see. But people would watch “Battlestar”.

In terms of progression of story, Rymer does admit he misses “slow” in films and television. He misses the time it takes to tell a good story. In the “Battlestar” miniseries, they had an hour to set up the characters. The original script was two hours. The eventual edit was 4 but they got it down to 3. This continued into the series which allowed for an interesting pace. With Ron Moore’s blueprint, nothing would happen for three episodes and then there would be 15 events in an hour. A good example is when you find out that four of your most beloved characters are Cylons. The scene involved at least three or four minutes for them to talk about it.

Rymer always shot extra material. In his words, Rymer says that Ron Moore “doesn’t dick around” with story. If it doesn’t add up, you have to dazzle with light and motion. Normally you are dealing, he says, with a script to move it forward. With Moore, it was about filling in the connective tissue between the blanks.

Rymer also made sure to single out composer Bear McCready who he says did an amazing job over the years. Bear was serving something else from writers and directors who have no understanding of music and lifted the show to new heights from his perspective.

Rymer doesn’t like to pick favorites among the cast but he does single out Michael Hogan who played Colonel Tigh. Rymer says that he can watch anything Hogan does. The way Hogan envisioned the character, according to Rymer, was so broad and theatrical and yet so real and true. Many actors get away with underplaying it but that was not Hogan’s style.

Rymer does believe we are in another golden age of television because right now TV is where the writers live. Television also right now has the canvas that feature films, in his mind, don’t seem to have. Rymer loved the old miniseries style because of their long form stories. Feature films in today’s age by comparison, to him, seem too contrived in their current state.

At the time of this conversation, Rymer had directed almost 40 hours of drama and in high quality although he admits that he could see on procedurals shows being bogged down by the structure…but not on “Battlestar”.

Rymer then talks that he did the miniseries and then the episode “33” [considered by many to be the finest episode]. But the first episode he did after that [“Water”], he says wasn’t great. He admits that not every episode is going to be as strong as another. He uses this to broach the subject of the webisodes which at times were being done off in the corner. His perspective is that some things in the webisodes didn’t gel with Battlestar proper so it was good to keep them separate.

When asked about the ending of the series, Rymer will only say that he applauded the decision. The answers still remain a mystery. Some people might have been upset that they didn’t get a particular issue. However with his favorite movies, Rymer says, he couldn’t tell you what happened at the end.

Another issue addressed involved the mid season finale of Season 4 where the Battlestar crew lands on Earth and finds the planet decimated. Rymer says that it was a pretty dramatic move. At that point, they had 10 more episodes to resolve this and they were on the cusp of the writer’s strike. The writer’s strike could have gone on for six months. They were all on the beach location and the cast thought it was the last day of the show. They all went off and drank, having a good time. There was alot of syncronicity he says on that day between Jamie/Baltar and Katee/Starbuck specifically. Ron wanted to guarantee the 4th and 5th season. Sci Fi Channel played chicken with Ron and told him that Season 4 would be it. Rymer admits they were floundering in the ratings. He does believe if they went beyond where they ended, the quality would have diminished. Most of the actors, he believed, had played out their archs. They were happy to end it when they did. He says that they were lucky with what they got. Ron liked “The Sopranos” but Rymer didn’t want to end it on that day.

Rymer also mentions that he had just done the commentary for the season finale while he was in Mexico and Ron [Moore] and David [Eick] were drinking tequila somewhere else. They shot the finale nearly a year ago. The DVD of the finale is nearly 45 minutes longer than what was shown. The only thing that Rymer will say is that “Apocalypse Now Redux” wasn’t the right thing.

“Battlestar” was a battle in itself that resulted because of a great creative team in a singular movie event that both trascended and lived up to its legacy due in no small part to the dexterity and perseverance of its major director, Michael Rymer.

“Battlestar Galactica” UN Social Issues/LA Times “Envelope” Event – Mann Chinese

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The essence of “Battlestar Galactica” during its run was how it mirrored the practicality of what was being seen in the world into a space opera. Many critics praised it as being the smartest show on television in that it took real world scenarios and placed it in science fiction base but gave it a gravitas that might not go away so suddenly. From examinations of torture, trials of penance where the verdict had already been set and genocide on a mass scale, the creative team slyly masked the true subjects they were tackling.

Back in March, “Battlestar Galactica” was highlighted and lauded by the UN in New York in an unprecedented move where it was lauded for breaching popular culture and world issues. It acknowledged the social issues that it brought to a mass audience. Now three months later as Emmy elements mount up, a similar roundtable-type panel was held at the Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood with representatives from the UN as well as Show Creators Ron Moore and David Eick as well as stars Edward James Olmos (who played Admiral Adama) and Mary McDonnell (who played President Laura Roslin).

One of the UN representatives on the panel was quick to point upon questioning from the LA Times Moderator that they could write many boring memos without the slightest inkling of how to get the word out to young people. They made this move to create the connection. Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos were very moved by this because it showed the intensity of what the show portrays. The reality for the UN is that the creative sector offers the ability to motivate the young to act in ways policy can never do. In a world where President Obama is talking about watching the new “Star Trek” movie at the White House and living up to his “Spock with sex appeal” image, popular culture is now more than ever a predilection to social change.

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The aspect to the actors was also to make sure to show that people in places of leadership are still human. Olmos at first wasn’t quite sure in seeing exactly where Adama would go. He said one of the most poignant moments for him in the series is when he turns to his 2nd: Colonel Tigh in one of the last episodes of the series and gives the order to abandon ship. He has given up. He had spent suffering moments on the floor over loss from his son to his new love Roslin. Olmos said that it spoke very much to military commanders who could never reveal the emotional upheaval going on behind their stoic personas. He said he received a lot of response in regards to this.

When asked about her perception as a role model especially during the campaign of Hillary Clinton, McDonnell says of her potrayal of Roslin that she was quite flattered by this comparison but that Roslyn has all the flaws of all. She can be vicious and vindicative but decisive while still being very afraid inside.

The tragedy is that the two souls of Adama and Roslin finally find each other but their time together never truly happens. Such is the way of life. It is that practicality and honesty that speaks to the social issues that the UN was honoring with this evening.

Olmos was also able to premiere with pride, a trailer for the upcoming “Galactica” special two hour film “The Plan” which is still being edited. It mirrors the different tactical strategies that the Cylons, led by Dean Stockwell, took to stay one step ahead of the humans from before the attack on Caprica and beyond. Olmos says that when Starbuck said she was going the wrong way, she wasn’t kidding. The movie premieres in the fall on Sci-Fi. He offers the tidbit that the TV cut is 88 minutes but the DVD cut is 126 which has been the case on alot of the series. There is always more to digest. Olmos can definitely be the showman when we wants.

Creator Ron Moore also made a concerted effort to point out someone in the audience who he says often doesn’t get the credit for his contributions to the series. He says that he and his associate David Eick get alot of the praise but this man was the third person with which it wouldn’t be possible. That person was Michael Rhymer, a director of the bulk of the series. The entire theater stood up and gave a standing ovation to this man who made alot of what was onscreen possible.

This series means alot of things to many people. The communal nature of its impact might not be as of yet realized. However in a year of Emmy voting, this series definitely deserves its due for doing what many aspects of popular culture never get to do: make a difference and grow beyond its genre holdings to become something bigger than life.