The Ronald Reagan bio pic, isn’t the only made for television movie causing a stir this fall. Fans of the 70’s television series “”Battlestar Galactica”” have had their ire raised for months now. The folks at the Sci-Fi channel have bodly “”re-imagined”” this beloved cult classic and caused quite an uproar in the process. We recently caught up with the director of “”Battlestar Galactica”” and asked him, “”What the hell were you thinking?”” Here’s what he had to say for himself.
EM First, I have to note that Australia seems to be quite the wellspring of quality directors. Why do you think that is?
Rymer Yes, I’m very proud of that fact — why is that the case? I would say that the basic reason is that Australia used to have a very high level of high school and undergrad education. When I travelled to USC, which is admittedly known for its academic stands, I realized how much better educated I was than my contemporaries.
EM How did the Galactica project come to be offered to you? And what was there about it, that spoke to you as a director, that made you take the gig?
Rymer I’m always surprised at the offers I get — you’d have to ask the producers but I think my background in Arthouse cinema and my experience dealing with a special fx heavy studio film gave them a lot of comfort. I have a limited background in documentaries and an extensive background in improvisation, so I think was very well suited to realize Ron and David’s vision of a hand-held, realistic space opera.Why did I take the job? I found the story and characters very compelling — the last thing I wanted to do was shoot action and green screen material — it was the strength of Ron’s script that tipped me over the edge.
EM Mr. Moore produced an awfully good script for the mini-series. How did the two of you work together [no script gets shot without *some* changes], what was that process like for the two of you?
Rymer The script was pretty much in tact when I read it. There were some notes and there were a lot of changes necessary to scaled down the scope of the production to the budget. Ron was very gracious in letting me get my mits on the script. He approved some of my changes and vetoed others.
EM Although “”Queen of the Damned”” was critcally panned, and didn’t do much at the box office, I thought your direction was pretty good – saving what could be saved from a script that was more than a bit disjointed. What did you learn from the experience of making “”Queen of the Damned””, that helped you deal with the F/X heavy Galactica project?
Rymer Well I agree completely with your assessment — I consider it to be something of a failure — an interesting, ambitious failure. But I learned more from my mistakes than all my successes put together. There were many aesthetic pot-holes I managed to circumvent on this one, but more importantly, I learned some very basic political lessons. You always want to have people like you and have a happy team, but my new mantra when tackling “”assignments”” that I haven’t written and developed is “”No one’s going to thank you for letting them fuck it up.”” I gave too much power to people who didn’t know as much as I thought they did. The question is, do you stick to your vision and give them an excuse to fire you and spend the rest of your days wondering if you might have had your way. Or do you play ball and hope that the compromises don’t reach a critical mass. Of course, at the time, you think you can beat the system, but when you look at the great filmmakers destroyed by Hollywood, it was very arrogant on my part –I was not nearly as smart as I thought I was. Even though I was not the originator and author, the only way to make a coherent piece of art is to have a singular vision, and take control. I have a lot of respect for arthouse directors who manage the transition and make good films in the studio system.Interestly, because I’m a feature director doing TV, I had a lot more leverage and therefore a lot more control. Kudos to David, Ron., USA and SciFi for mostly letting me do my thing.[pagebreak]
EM Specifically, how did you work with the F/X people on the space battle, the various facets of Cylon attacks, the destruction of the sub-light vessels, and so forth?
Rymer Gary [Visual Effects supervisor, Gary Hutzel] was a huge asset to this whole process as was the entire team at Zoic Studios. Firstly, they came up with a process of doing very detailed previsualizations which allowed us to do some very complicated FX set ups that matched the hand-held camera work in the live action. We had another mantra here which is “”Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”” which translates as “”don’t just go for the obvious big shots — another lesson I learned on Queen. The other lesson is, “”if you can’t afford to do it properly, find another way to shoot it.
EM With any SF/fantasy project, F/X are going to be an important part of the story, but without a good story, and good characters, the best F/X in the world are useless. Galactica features some of the most interesting characters in the history of movie and television space opera, and one of the best casts. How did you approach the actors and their characters? How much of their depth came from the page, and how much do you think was the product of your direction and the actors’ takes on their characters?
Rymer Jeez, that’s a big question. The most important thing is casting and boy did I have a fine cast — I’ve been privileged to work with some very gifted actors in my work and this one was a new high water mark for me — the combination of the veterens and the neophytes, the old and the young — it felt like a very coherent ensemble and I don’t think we had a weak link in the whole group.The biggest thing I tried to do was make it real — I would ask the question “”Are we doing justice to the families of the victims of 9/11? Are we doing justice to the young soldiers in Iraq? Also, we worked hard to “”mess things up”” — to create reaction and behaviour that was sometimtes underplayed, sometimes just unexpected. The nightly news was a constant like a text book where you’d constantly be saying “”see how they reacted to this? That’s real, not the big obvious displays of emotion. I mean, you’re talking about the end of the world — how do you get your imagination around that? It was an exciting challenge and I think the cast delivered.
EM It seems that the majority of television pilots are directed by people who have come to be regarded as pilot specialists. Most do not follow a pilot to series, though more are now than used to. The Galactica mini-series is not just a television event, it is also a pilot for a series. If it does go to series, would you be keen to direct more episodes?
Rymer I enjoy doing television because right now the scripts I’m getting are more literate and character driven than the features I read. Also, there’s an immediacy to watching it air in such a small time frame. I have offered to come back and help with the series but really it’s the writer/producer who is the singular vision of a series, so my task would be to transition creative power back to Ron.
EM Overall, how was your Galactica experience? And how well do you think you pulled it off?
Rymer It was a blast — I have a lot of good relationships coming out of this job and a lot of fun memories. I’m also proud of my work — the main goal was to open up SciFi to an audience that would normally tune out as soon as they see someone in a silly costume or a bumpy head — the verdict is out on whether we succeeded in that goal.