The longtime portrayer of Dr. Daniel Jackson talks about the long-running series and its continuation on DVD
Michael Shanks has been a big part of the sci-fi community for the past decade with his role as Dr. Daniel Jackson in the hit series Stargate SG-1. Even though the show was cancelled last year, the show has been given new life in the form of DVD, with two new straight-to-DVD releases, Stargate: The Ark of Truth, and Stargate: Continuum. I had the privilege to speak with this talented young actor over the phone about the series and these new DVDs, and here' s what he had to say.
Robert Cooper has said that Stargate: The Ark of Truth was what he had in mind for the Season 10 finale. How far were you into Season 10 when you found out you were going to be cancelled?
Michael Shanks: We were probably closer to the end. I think we were about eight episodes away from being done. Oddly enough, we were just a week away from having our 200th episode party. They had a big bash planned when the news broke, so that put a big damper on the celebratory experience for us.
How long after that did you find out about Stargate: The Ark of Truth and Continuum?
Michael Shanks: Nothing was confirmed until, oddly enough, around Christmas time and into the New Year, actually. The rumors had sort of been circulating before and just after the cancellation, that these films would be the way to go. Of course, nothing was going to be invested fully until we found out the fate of the show and MGM wanted time to try and find a different outlet for all these other things. Our producers had been bugging MGM to try and find some format to do features of some capacity for years and years, since the fifth season, because we always thought that, after five seasons, to do a feature film the way the franchise started with a feature film. Brad Wright, who's our showrunner and created the series, he's always been adamant about doing a feature, so this was his dream from square one.
When I was watching the making-of featurette, it really seemed to have like a first day of school kind of vibe, with everyone coming back after a bit of a break. Was that kind of how it was?
Michael Shanks: Well, you know what, oddly enough, we're always like that. There's a little bit of "glad to see you" kind of thing, but anyone that comes on our set, be it a reporter or a crew member or a guest star, they've always taken away the vibe that that set's contained, which is a really frivolous, have-fun kind of atmosphere. We don't take ourselves too seriously, there aren't a lot of large egos at play. It's very easy for people to catch B-roll on our show, goofing around, because we're always doing it. As much as the school-day atmosphere, happy to see each other, we're always like that too, even when we're working together for 10 years.
The whole show really seems like a well-oiled machine with everyone working together for so long. Since this was a feature, were there any sort of adjustments that you guys had to make, as opposed to the series?
Michael Shanks: Very few. There were some because of the timeline, because it wasn't a season we were doing, we lost a few people in different departments, hair, and some in the camera department as well, but there wasn't much of a learning curve for them. Rob Cooper, who hadn't directed us a great deal, was the director, but he was also our executive producer and wrote the damn thing so he knew his vision from square one. It was pretty easy to get on the rails. I think we did have a little difficulty going back to 35mm. We've been shooting in HD for so long, that we forgot that we couldn't just keep dicking around and waste film as much as we'd want to. We actually had to be serious about how much film we'd use, so that was a bit of an adjustment. Other than that, because they're so many people that have been there for so long and know their jobs absolutely, that there's very little learning to do in that environment, except for the fact that things we wanted to be a little more important, we want the emotions to be more taut. There was always that idea in the back of your head, but I don't think anything was too much of a struggle.
You really get this great cinematic feel with the great landscape shots, and Chris Judge trudging up the mountain. What was it like shooting on locations like that, stuff that you wouldn't normally get to shoot on the series?
Michael Shanks: The only thing I would know is from watching it. I would agree with you that the opening sequence with the helicopter shots, and obviously listening to Joel's (Goldsmith) score, watching Teal'c trudge through the mountains and whatnot, it's a very different thing for our show. When I first saw it, I saw it up on the big screen, and it had a great cinematic feel to it. It's great. It's a great feeling to watch it and to have it not feel like it doesn't fit in that environment. That it does feel bigger, and larger than life, and certainly larger than the television screen than we've been on. It's nice to get to this different level, and I'm excited to see what else we can do with them. I know there are other possibilities being thought up for them as we speak.
I also noticed that the writing, the dialogue, seemed to be geared more towards a cinematic environment, not like the one-liner TV style. It seemed like there wasn't as much of the snappy humor in the movie.
Michael Shanks: What I appreciated about it was, we had gotten used to, in the series, the idea that the powers that be wanted us to be accessible to new viewers. There was a constant need, as the characters wandered through everything, to keep explaining, expositorily, every detail about everything that we're seeing and how it relates to this happened before. New audiences who watch it for the first time - well, frankly they're going to be confused anyway - but it's going to be a bigger chore as the seasons went on because the mythology kept building and building. I appreciated that we left a lot of the expository stuff on the floor, and we dealt more with the emotions of the characters and the specifics of the situations themselves as opposed to delving into back story and whatnot. That was a nice relief from the usual stuff we've done on the show.
I really liked the prelude, I think it's a twenty minute or half-hour prelude, that wrapped up Season 10 and gave you a bit of a refresher course on the series, so you knew what you were getting into.
Michael Shanks: Yeah, I think that's a wonderful thing, especially with a straight-to-DVD release. Obviously, you're not going to get the chance to do that if it's a theatrical release, but with a DVD release, it gives you the chance to add these extra features and allow people to access it that would be looking at these things going, 'What the heck is that supposed to be?' Instead of having your sister explain it, you can tune into the special features. I think it's a great addition to get people up to snuff. Whether they're going to realize that's available going in or not, we'll have to wait and see, but I think it's a great idea.
I saw they brought in Julian Sands, who's been in a few episodes before, into the movie. What was he like to work with? I still picture him as Warlock every time I see him in anything.
Michael Shanks: (Laughs) I don't disagree with you. I see him as either Warlock, Boxing Helena or Killing Fields, oddly enough. I think this time was a really relaxed time for him. I think the first time he came in, which I believe was early in our ninth season, there had been a bunch of mitigating circumstances that made his one day on that episode not go so smoothly, so I don't think he had the best of times. The work experience was fine, but I don't think he had the best experience on our set at that time. It wasn't any major difficulty. We were more concerned on whether he was happy when he was there. I was surprised to hear he was coming back, and then when he came back he said, 'I had such a great time.' He was very relaxed, very grateful to be back and what was really great talking to Julian Sands, is he said more than a lot of the things that he's done, people are recognizing him for the sort of small-ish part he plays on our show. When he goes over to the U.K. people say, 'Hey, you were on Stargate.' This is a guy that has done a LOT of stuff.
Michael Shanks: He said it was amazing how many people were sort of pointing out that his appearance went noticed, and he was quite surprised at that fact because he didn't realize what a following the show had. But when he came back he was great, so any concerns about him not coming back or being unhappy last time, were kind of put to the side and he was very relaxed for the brief time we got to work together, especially considering that the poor guy is trapped under all that prosthetic and contact lenses. I've been through it, and it's not the most joyous of experiences, but he was still pretty down-to-earth and still pretty cool.
I just loved the Comic-Con panel on the special features, when they tried to call you at the end. Were you really in the bathroom when they called you?
Michael Shanks: No, I was in the car. I had to drop my daughter off at day camp. We're coming back and the phone rang and I looked at the clock and I knew immediately. I knew it was Chris calling, and I knew this was the time he was supposed to on the panel. I told my sis, 'He's trying to call me when he's on the panel in front of all these people.' So she answered and talked. That was all her improv in there.
Gotcha. Have you seen that yet at all?
Michael Shanks: I haven't seen it. I was a party to it firsthand, so I can imagine. Trust me, with Chris Judge, it's not the first time he's pulled that one, that's why I was very savvy as to what he was up to at that particular moment.
I see you've written and directed a couple of episodes of Stargate SG-1 in the past. Are you planning on doing anymore writing or directing for TV or film somewhere down the line?
Michael Shanks: Well, Chris Judge and I have a project that's going forward with MGM called Reach of Angels, that Chris wrote the pilot script for. If it goes to series, which is our belief and wish, we'll both be writing for that as well as acting in it. Whether or not I decide to direct is another whole ball of wax, but we definitely want to create the mythology of that program if it goes to series. So, definitely it's something I plan on doing in the future, if not for that project then for something else.
Is this another sci-fi project?
Michael Shanks: I would call it more in the fantasy realm. It's basically about the angel Gabriel who comes to Earth to start a war with Lucifer for control and... well, we'll just leave it at that. Much shennanigans ensue (Laughs).
Do you have an idea on when you'll have any word on that?
Michael Shanks: Well, MGM gave the green light. They purchased the rights to the script. They've done the contract deal for both the script and the actor deal for Christopher, who's going to be playing Gabriel in it. That part is out of the way. We're just waiting to set a timeline, and start doing some casting for it.
Is there anything you can tell us about Continuum? Is there a release date slated for that? I've seen July 2008, but that's all I've seen.
Michael Shanks: I have no idea. I only found out recently that Stargate: The Ark of Truth is going to be coming out when it was. I heard October for Continuum. I'm not sure what the hold-up is. I'm sure there's a reason for it, but I'm not party to it.
(Note: At this point the rep came on the line and said, "At this time, it's definitely July.")
Since you haven't seen the Comic-Con panel, the last question was are you going to die in Continuum again? It seems like you're the Kenny of Stargate.
Michael Shanks: (Laughs) Yeah, it's almost become a running joke. It's taking the jeopardy out of the situations our characters are put in. If you can die from every situation, and still manage to come back for the next episode, it takes the gut-wrenching, climactic feelings out of the audience's because the belief that they might not see this guy again. It certainly is testing the realms of believability, I guess. As Brad Wright was quoted as saying before, 'There's nothing better than being able to kill your regular character' (Laughs).
Yeah. I think Robert Cooper said (at the Comic-Con panel), 'It's just not Stargate if he doesn't die.'
Michael Shanks: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Is there anything you'd like to say to all the ardent Stargate fans out there?
Michael Shanks: Thank you. Thank you for continuing to support the franchise and we'll look forward to spending more time with you in this year and in the years to come.
Finally, I noticed there's been a bit of a trend, like Futurama is trying to go this route with putting out these straight-to-DVD's in hopes of maybe getting enough buzz to get back on the air again. Is that maybe an underlying goal of these DVD's?
Michael Shanks: I don't think so. I don't believe so. I mean, in this specific instance, I really think we're shooting from the hip. We wanted to switch formats to go to something that was going to be larger than what we were doing before, that's going to take less time than what we were doing before. It was necessary, because the show was being cancelled and we wanted to finish that storyline, and if we wanted to get together for like a reunion once a year or something like that, to tell some more stories, and we had to find a medium for it. Obviously, the DVD medium is the perfect one. We don't have the money available to us to do a large theatrical release and have a huge impact, but we had enough to do more than your average television show. The DVD market has always been good to the franchise so it's obviously a strong tool out there for giving fans what they need if they don't have a regular weekly window for it. I believe for the studio, for MGM, keeping the brand name out there is an important thing with the video game coming out and the possibility of another spin-off in the works, it's a great tool to keep the series alive. In terms of keeping the show resurrected, I don't think that's going to happen.
Well, that's about all I have for you, Michael. Thank you so much for your time.
Michael Shanks: All right, sir. Take care.
Stargate: The Ark of Truth will be on the DVD shelves on March 11.