Saturday, February 28, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: Weddle & Thompson talk "Someone to Watch Over Me"

As she's been doing for most of this final batch of "Battlestar Galactica" episodes, Mo Ryan reached out to the writers of "Someone to Watch Over Me" with some questions about the show. Last week and this week, she invited me to throw in some of my own questions, and writers David Weddle and Bradley Thompson answered many of them -- while Weddle noted that he had answers for others in a letter he wrote to "BSG" composer Bear McCreary. Bear should have the full letter up on his blog by the time I post this, and I'll include some excerpts from it at the end of David and Bradley's responses to the questions Mo and I asked.

Alan: When Tyrol returns to the dream house on Picon, is it empty because he's not doing the projection with Boomer? Or is it empty because she was scamming him the whole time?

Weddle: Cylon projections are fantasy expressions of their subconscious desires or emotional life. Tyrol’s return to the empty fantasy house at the end of the show to find Boomer and his imaginary daughter gone was an expression his devastation and despair.

Thompson: It’s empty because that’s what he experienced. Like Tyrol, you’ll have to draw your own conclusions. But it was definitely not a random dramatic decision. We weren’t being all mysterioso. There’s logic to it.

While working in Japan a long time ago, a Japanese businessman I was interviewing explained that when Americans come to his country, they’re always asking what they should see, and his countrymen advise them to go see this or that famous shrine. The Americans take the trip and arrive at this shabby little shrine. And they’re disappointed. An interview subject told me it was because of a different cultural orientation. “For you Americans, it’s all about reaching the goal. For us, it is the journey.”

"Battlestar Galactica" is a wonderful journey – which, because we all took it together, will make Ron’s fantastic three-hour finish all the more compelling.

Mo: Did Boomer really love the Chief? Or was that final speech to him just another part of her con job?

Weddle: Did Boomer really love the Chief? That’s an interesting question and one I don’t have a neat answer to. Boomer is deeply conflicted. I think the process of having false memories planted in her, getting switched “on” as a Cylon, shooting Adama, getting shot by Cally, and her experiences on New Caprica have left her severely disturbed. She was determined to go through with her mission, but in the process of seducing Tyrol she reawakened feelings of love that she thought were dead. I think she experienced real misgivings just before she got on that Raptor, but felt she had gone too far to back down. Wrapped up in that is her perverse envy of Athena, who obtained everything Boomer once wanted, and this festered into a sick desire to strike out at Athena. It’s difficult to say someone who did that loves the Chief, and yet in her damaged way, I think she did and still does love him.

Thompson: Good question. She may not even know the answer. Boomer’s a complicated, damaged individual. Might both be true?

Mo: Is Tyrol in love with the real Boomer or the one he remembers?

Weddle: This is exactly the question he is struggling with. His visits to the fantasy house illustrate that he’s in love with the dreams he’s attached to Boomer about a life he would like to have. Don’t we all do this to some extent to the people we fall in love with? And when they fail to live up to our fantasies or expectations, it can be excruciating for them and for us.

Thompson: Black-and-white answers would be nice. But that’s not generally true of the human – or Cylon - heart. Brings up an interesting question: Does commitment to your mission, your country, your people, outweigh the dictates of your heart?

Mo: What did the Chief think was in that box he toted around for Boomer? Change of clothes?

Weddle: In the beginning of the episode, Starbuck instructs Raptor pilots going out on long duration planet-hunting missions to pack food and water for those long flights. And we see them pack cases just like the one Boomer puts Hera in. Tyrol thought he was giving Boomer a chance to get away and find a life somewhere. Naturally, she would need to take food and water to give her as much time to do that as possible.

Thompson: “PROVISION PACKAGE - LONG DURATION” – We establish those big boxes of gear as planet-hunting mission requirements early in the show, and since that was Athena’s task, it would draw attention if she didn’t load out one of those crates. So Chief Tyrol probably assumed she was carrying the box she was issued for the flight.

Mo: Would we be correct in assuming that everything Boomer did from the moment she left Cavil's base ship was part of his plan to get Hera?

Thompson: How do you escape from a fully armed base ship?

Alan: Ron said in the podcast for "Deadlock" that there was originally a different plan for how Boomer's story would end, but he couldn't get into it yet without spoiling what was to come on the actual show. Are we yet at a point where you can explain how the original plan diverged, or do we need to wait a while?

Thompson: You’ll have to wait.

The part of the question that is from Alan: Bear McCreary said that the piano player was partly modeled on him. Was this story about finding a way to celebrate Bear's contribution to the show, or had you decided to do a music-themed Starbuck episode and then realized you had a pretty talented musician nearby you could brainstorm with?

The part of the question that is from Mo: Was Bear on the set for the entire making of the episode, and if so, how much of "STWOM" was changed/altered/rethought based on his input? I look forward to reading Bear's account of the making of the episode on his blog, but what is your take on what he brought to it?

Thompson: The show was never conceived as “music themed” – we wanted to help fill in the gap we perceived in Starbuck’s story – and since her father was a musician, it seemed natural to explore what happened to the musical part of her.

We asked to have Bear was in Canada for the entire shoot, because he had to compose music that would actually be played live on the set during shooting by Roark Critchlow and Katee Sackhoff. It was also vital to have him interact with Michael Nankin, our director, because making a show like this is a constant process of discovery, and we needed the flexibility to change as we learned new things about the characters.

Bear also sampled our wonderfully out-of-tune set piano so he could add music voiced with the same instrument during scoring, as well as change any pieces that didn’t fly during the initial performance.

We modeled Slick on Bear because Bear undergoes the same tortures of the damned trying to top himself with each new Battlestar Score (keep setting the bar to the maximum and then trying to top it – try that for four years straight – yet he keeps succeeding). That seemed to match Slick’s drive to compose.

I can’t really speak to the idea of how much was “changed” due to his input because he was a full-on interactive collaborator in making the episode as successful as it was. It was something we all did together (with Ron and Michael, Katee and Roark) growing this thing organically from all our input.

Alan: Am I correct in interpreting the shot of Kara, Tigh and Tory at the piano -- with the piano player and his sheet music nowhere in sight -- to mean that he was never there? And if so, is Kara hallucinating -- or is she projecting? And is there any reason why we shouldn't assume that Kara's father -- musician with a name that starts with D, who taught her how to play the Final Five version of "All Along the Watchtower" -- is Daniel, the artistic and missing eighth Cylon model?

Thompson: Interpretations are always subjective and belong to the interpreter. We put something on the screen with clues to assemble into conclusions. Are yours the same as ours? Do they satisfy you?

Mo: Does the fact that Dreilide Thrace's recording was titled "Live from the Helice Opera House" have any connection to the "Opera House" visions that have long been part of the show?

Thompson: Maybe.

Mo: To me, so much of this episode (quite heartbreakingly) dwelled on what these people have lost or given up or had to suppress in order to survive. Was revisiting that an important part of starting to close the chapter on the story of these characters, in particular Tyrol and Starbuck?

Weddle: It was thrilling and fulfilling for Brad and me to write this episode because we got to revisit the pivotal characters of Boomer, Tyrol and Starbuck. We were deeply involved in plotting their character arcs throughout the four seasons of the show and it was exciting and rewarding to craft some of the final movements of their journeys. The entire staff believed it was very important to revisit the Boomer/Tyrol relationship, especially since the Chief has discovered he is a Cylon. And exploring Kara’s relationship with her father in a way completes her biography and rounds out her character. This episode puts events in motion that will propel our characters to the climax of our story. So it is not a tone poem in any sense of the word.

Thompson: We always felt that a love such as shared by Chief Tyrol and Lt. Valerii wouldn’t simply go quietly away – especially given the changes that both have gone through in the last four years. And the reasons they parted – do they make sense after all this? Is there still something left? We wanted to see where that led. And since we’re in the last headlong dive for the final logo, if not now, when?

Mo: For me, the moment when Tyrol spots the daughter he could have had is one of the most bittersweet and emotional ones of the season. Aaron Douglas' performance was spot on throughout, but I am betting director Michael Nankin had something to do with the performances we saw. Am I right in recalling that you had asked that he be hired to direct this episode? Why?

Thompson: Every one of the cast was blow-you-away spectacular. One of Nankin’s many gifts is the ability to run the throttle on these powerful engines so that the moment has maximum impact when it finally plays. I have to say that Aaron and Grace outdid themselves for this episode, fearlessly reaching into painful personal places for some of their best work. And Katee reached the same place with Slick.

Another part of Mr. Nankin’s talent is that he creates an atmosphere where actors feel safe taking chances, can risk falling on their asses, knowing that he’ll put them back on the path if they go astray. It’s a trust built over a lot of working together. And it’s especially tough on these actors because with them, we expect brilliance.

Michael Nankin is one of the most talented directors I’ve had the good fortune to work with, and he was slotted into Episode 19 long before we knew what it was – or that we’d be writing it. After “Someone…” Mark Verheiden was sorting out the writing assignments for the last shows of the series and asked us if we wanted to do one more. We, of course, grabbed for it with both hands and our prehensile feet. He then asked which slot we’d prefer and it was a no brainer: Mr. Nankin’s.

Mo: How much did you draw on the Weddle & Thompson writing process and collaboration for the scenes Kara and the piano player composing music?

Thompson: In my recollection, it was more about the agony and joy Bear experiences during that process. Of course, there are parallels in any creative endeavor, but in this case, David spent a lot of time talking with Bear and making it musician/composer-specific.

Mo: Speaking of composition, what had to be cut from "STWOM"? What happened on set that you weren't expecting or that presented difficulties?

Thompson: It’s been a while since I watched all this go down, but I think most of the cuts were in the music because it was long and that was the place where we could best afford the loss. The show was restructured in editing, because Andy and Paul found a way that the climax with Kara and the climax with Boomer could happen simultaneously, which made the end much more satisfying.

And I should note that we’d been admonished (by high level players who will remain nameless) not to have Helo make the mistake he makes. We backed off in subsequent drafts (feeling like we were somehow cheating the fans) until Michael Nankin’s first round of script notes hit Ron, saying, “I can’t believe you have this opportunity and you’re not going all the way with it.” And Ron turned to us and said: “He’s right. It’s so wrong we have to do it!” And we got to put that moment back in the show.

An addendum on Boomer-Tyrol story from Thompson: The thing I forgot to mention is, if I recall correctly, that the Boomer Tyrol aspect of this story was something we'd floated in the room in season 3 but didn't know where it fit or what it would be. Like so many Battlestar ideas, it simply hung in limbo until the time was right for maximum impact.

That's one of the genius parts of Ron -- patience. Like with the nuke six asked Baltar to get. And how it eventually played out. When the time came, we were very happy we'd had that one in our back pocket. But Ron didn't force playing that card until it made sense to do so. Likewise with Boomer-Tyrol.

Alan: A portion of the fandom has gotten upset with episodes like "A Disquiet Follows My Soul" and "Deadlock" for what they perceive as a slow pace, not enough answers about the mythology or forward plot advancement, and not enough about what they consider "the endgame." Now you guys have written an episode where large chunks are about Starbuck remembering how to play the piano, and while I liked it, I suspect you may have the barbarians at the gate like they were for Jane last week. Anything you want to say to reassure them about what's coming? Is a lot of the endgame stuff being saved for the finale proper? Or do you feel like fans who only care about the plot and the mythology are missing some key component of the show?

Weddle: I love the shows that concentrate on the emotional lives of our characters. They are fundamentally important in laying the foundation for the big action oriented episodes like [Season 3's] "Exodus." "Exodus" has so much power because "Occupation" and "Precipice" set the table, and put all the pieces in place for the climax. “A Disquiet Follows My Soul” sets the table for the two unbearably tense mutiny shows that follow it. Fans may think they want every episode to be nothing but slam-bang action, but if you didn’t have the quiet episodes that place each character emotionally and set up the stakes for our people, the action episodes would be hollow exercises.

Thompson: A great symphony or great novel can’t all be furious pace, crash, and bang. That would leave no room for dynamics and contrast. Battlestar Galactica has always been about the characters, not plot or endgame. It rests on the people: They’re either interesting and satisfying or not. As for what’s coming? It’s Ron’s vision, Ron’s story and either you trust him with the few hours that are left or you don’t. All I can say is that for us, the series comes to a satisfying, earned, and honest conclusion.

Mo: Did I spot Mr. Weddle sitting next to Starbuck in Joe's Bar at one point? Or was I projecting?

Weddle: Congratulations on spotting the Weddle skinjob at the bar. Now you know the hideous truth. Weddle is a Cylon. I am surprised you didn’t spot another skinjob in the bar during the previous episode.

Thompson: Yes. I’m in the scene, too, though I don’t think I made the cut. We flipped for who would be where, and had no idea how the scene would play at that point.

...We felt this had to be a memorable episode, one that could stand beside the others. And we soon hit upon the idea of dealing with Kara’s father, the absent parent whom we knew about only through a brief snatch of his piano music played in her apartment in “Valley of Darkness.” By exploring her relationship with her father, we could complete the story of Kara, in a way.

We also were drawn to the idea that the scene in “Valley of Darkness” where Kara and Helo visit her apartment would contain two major clues to the epic story of "Battlestar": Kara’s painting on the wall, and her father’s music, which she plays and is obviously deeply affected by. If we could pull this off, a tangential scene that initially seemed to be only a poetic mood piece, would later be revealed as one of the most pivotal moments in the entire series.

So we sat down in the writers room with the rest of the staff and began to explore this. The first pedestrian approach that I flogged was to tell the story in a series of flashbacks where Kara would remember playing piano with her father as a child and remember the day he abandoned her. We soon hit on the idea that the song he taught her could be “All Along the Watchtower.” The problem was how we could make this episode feel inventive and fresh and not like “Maelstrom II.”

Two inspirations enabled us to create an exciting new story that was not derivative. First, Mark Verheiden suggested that Kara’s father appear in Joe’s bar on Galactica as a kind of ghost, or projection of her subconscious. And we would hide this until the very end of the story when she finally remembers the song he taught her to play.

The second inspiration came from Ron Moore, who had the idea of Hera actually drawing the notes of "Watchtower." Ron said this could enable Starbuck to remember the song at the very moment that Hera is being kidnapped. Once we had those to breakthroughs, the story fell into place very rapidly...
Again, you should be able to read the full letter at Bear's blog.


Alan Sepinwall said...

More specific Bear links: Part 1 (including the full text of Weddle's letter), Part 2, and Part 3.

Unknown said...

Awesome. Thanks, Alan.

Myles said...

And to add to their answer of what was cut from the episode, there was apparently a Roslin/Adama story - Bear mentions in his letter that it was cut out of the episode entirely, which disappointed him since he had recorded a piano version of the Roslin and Adama theme.

Anonymous said...

Wow - Alan, you didn't even do a review and yet blew our minds ...

I had so much to think about last night's episode, I actually dreamt I was using a teeny bit of the toothpaste from that last-tube-in-the-universe-from-Tauron .... no joke.

I liked the connection they seemed to show between Roslin and Hera - how her heart hurt when Hera was off the ship ....

I agree with the comment in the main Q&A where one of the guys says - this is all Ron's vision - and he knows what he's doing and you either trust him or you don't. I feel the exact same way about Lost and people who complain about that all the time - we need a little more faith.

One interesting thing I noticed yesterday - when they were doing the whole Boomer/Tyrol flashbacks - first off, the ironies of his accusations were sooo amazing. When he told her "software doesn't have feelings .... " gotta love Aaron and Grace!!! More Grace because she's the same actress but she plays Athena and Boomer sssooo differently that you do believe they are all different ... you almost fault Helo for not noticing.

But anywho - one thing I noticed - Tyrol was in love with Boomer who was shot by Cally. Tyrol married Cally later - who was killed by Tory. Tyrol and Tory were supposed to be madly in love millenia ago, where they were looking to get married .... what does that say for Tory at the hands of Boomer??? Or vice versa??

I admit - I was very fidgety the first 20 minutes with the whole piano scene and what-not .... why were they slowing the pace NOW??? So thanks to the writers for setting me straight on that ...

Alan Sepinwall said...

I wrote a review; it's the post right below this one.

Anonymous said...

Hey Alan,

Any idea why Sci Fi has decided to engage in this bizarre behavior of not putting new BSG episodes on Hulo or the BSG website until EIGHT days after they aired on TV? For the whole first part of BSG they did what every other show does and they put it online within 24 hours. What's with this weird new policy? It's kind of a big slap in the face to fans who have been following it primarily online. I always see it on Sci Fi, but I liked to re-watch online, and I also have at least 3 friends who have been watching it only online via Hulu or the BSG website, so they're in an annoying predicament now.

I know the writers have nothing to do with this and it's probably the decision of some corporate stooge at Sci Fi, but I was wondering if in all your talks with writers you've ever heard the rationale behind this move?

Great interview, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Alan Sepinwall ... You suck man, I'm sorry but wow.

Anonymous said...

Alan - I know ... I saw it after I wrote my post - I apologize - and I can move my comment if you'd like.

Blame it on a lack of coffee - that's how desperately I read your reviews/posts etc .... gggaaahhh!!

Unknown said...

Gregory: I totally agree, but I remember them pulling that during the last airing of episodes as well. They also do the same trick with Psych (and Monk, I think). Totally irritating. Especially how they put them up 8 days later so you're STILL behind everyone else.

I have ah, had to resort to Other Methods of finding the episodes online so I can not avoid the Internet for a week. Thanks, Hulu, I'd rather be legal, but not NOW when watching BSG.