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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Read an Extended Version of Wired's Interview With Ron Moore


Battlestar Galactica re-creator Ron Moore
Photo: Frank Ockenfels

Wired: What were your hopes and thoughts for doing the show? Did you execute them?

Moore: Before the miniseries started, when I was really thinking about the project, pitching it — before I was even writing it — it was really about capturing a certain mood, a certain vibe for the show, that I didn't think anybody had done. I was really in love with this idea of doing a sort of documentary style, making it much more naturalistic than science fiction is usually presented. And I was looking for something that was neither Star Wars-Star Trek, which I categorized in my head as a sort of the romantic side, or Blade Runner-Matrix, the cyberpunk side. I wanted a third kind of category to put the show in.

I wanted something that would be different. I really wanted it to be grounded, I really wanted it to be political, to sort of comment on society in a much more aggressive way than the work I had been doing on Trek and the other pieces.

And to a large extent, I would say, yeah, we did accomplish that. I feel good about that. I remember when I watched the miniseries for the first time, even when I got the first box of dailies, I was really surprised that it was what I hoped it would be, that we captured that mood. That we plowed this new row, I was really thrilled with that. And then we set about more fully realizing it, broadening it and expanding it, deepening the story, but the minis really got to where I wanted to go.

Wired: Did you have a notion for what you wanted those politics to be, or did you know you just wanted it to be—

Moore: I just knew that I wanted it to be political. I knew I wanted to really get under the skin of a lot of things that at Trek you sort of dealt with but in very safe ways, in my opinion. We dealt with a lot of issues and concepts that we also deal with in Galactica, but it always felt like there was an easy moral answer by the end of the episode, and if it was ambiguous in the end it was a safe ambiguous way, and the good guys couldn't get roughed up that much, they just couldn't be that bad. They weren't human beings on some level. They weren't quite fully realized human beings.

I wanted this show to be more political in the sense that watching these characters grapple with these ideas and concepts would be controversial and difficult, and that it would spark debate and [that] you should not always agree with what your heroes were doing. Sometimes you'd be unclear whose side you were really on in the debates, and I wanted it to be more complicated and complex, much like the world we really live in.

Wired: OK, I can hear myself nerding out already, but: Dealing with the patriarchal captains that Trek had, that Galactica does, too, you find yourself in a much more complicated relationship with these surrogate fathers on Galactica. How do you maintain the character as being that father figure even though You're going to think He's wrong more often or disagree with him? [Captain] Picard sort of becomes easy. He's going to step in at the end and tell you what to think, pat you on the head.

Moore: Yeah, it's a different notion. I tried to deal with it where Adama was patriarchal in the family sense, He's the father figure of the cast and father figure of the show, but that from the beginning they call him the Old Man. They respect him and like him, and they all have affection for him on the ship, but plenty of people disagree with him, and not everybody thinks he walks on water. There's sort of a respect and distance, and as you got further into the show, you could see that he was a deeply flawed man, a man who just fell into this position.

Moore: One of the things I liked about the way we reconceived the show was just by saying that this wasn't one of the best ships in the fleet, that this was the— Enterprise is the best ship in the fleet. Even in the old Galactica series, the Galactica was a special ship. But if you tell stories about the elite or the best of the best, it always sort of throws you into this: They have to be really good, they have to be smarter than the average bear, they have to be paragons on some level to achieve this heroic status. By saying the ship was going into retirement, that they were all kind of castoffs and knuckleheads and people that other ships didn't want, and [that] Adamas going into retirement too and didn't make admiral and has a bad relationship with his son, [and that] He's divorced, [has] lost one son in an accident he still can't grapple with, and tolerates an alcoholic as his first officer, He's already a deeply flawed man.

Now, take the deeply flawed man and put him in the position where the fate of humanity rests on his shoulders and to me that's an interesting show. Suddenly, I'm engaged with him as a patriarchal figure because fathers are just flawed beings. You know, they're all deeply flawed people, like we all are, and it resonates more for me.

Wired: That is so different than what the original show did. Did you feel that you had any responsibility to the fans of the old show? I know there was a lot of interaction with them, especially because of what Richard Hatch was doing at the time, but I mean as you were putting together your version, did you have that in mind?

Moore: I felt a responsibility to the show, I felt a responsibility to still make it Battlestar Galactica, but by my lights, by how I interpreted things. I wasn't going to throw everything out, right? I looked at the show carefully, and I maintained the elements that I thought worked. Adama is the father figure. His son is the lead fighter pilot. His son is friends with this rogue character, Starbuck. The Cylons wipe out the 12 colonies. They're looking for Earth. They come from a place called Kobol. His first officer is Colonel Tigh. I tried to maintain a lot of the superstructure.

What I felt an obligation to really honor was the premise of the origin. My take on the old was that they had a great idea, a great premise for a series, [but one] that could not be executed in that time and place — on ABC in 1978. They had to essentially make it cheesy fun. It had to be a combination of Star Trek and Star Wars every week. Every week they had to do that planet-of-the-week type episode — where they come across some civilization where they all wear metal cowboy hats and it's Shane. Then they have guys in fighter craft flying around like Luke Skywalker fighting Cylons, and between the two you couldn't really do what the show was really about.

The show was about an apocalypse. The show opens with a genocide, an apocalyptic destruction of 12, count em, 12 planets. Billions of human lives are lost. The survivors heroically run away, fleeing an implacable enemy that is determined to destroy them no matter what, and they're looking for a mythical place called Earth.

And the first place they go is the casino planet.

And therein lies the contradiction and the problem with the show. They were unable to square that circle. There was no way in that era of television that they could really play the premise. It's a dark premise. It's a disturbing premise. It's a frightening premise. There was no way in those days they could play it.

I felt my obligation on some level was to do the show they shouldve made, the show that really honors the idea of what the show was about — this is a truer version of Battlestar Galactica in some ways than the original.

Wired: But you could say that about redoing any of those shows. I'll pick on Knight Rider, right? You could totally sit down and have that thought. I'm not necessarily asking you to comment specifically about that show, but it's like, OK, there's this scary undercover organization that goes and picks out a half-dead cop, rebuilds his face so he looks like the son of the guy who runs the thing, gives him the worlds most powerful artificial intelligence —

Moore: Is that the backstory to Knight Rider? Really?

Wired: Yeah.

Moore: Oh, wow. I didn't remember that.

Wired: We've been watching it on YouTube in the office, mostly for the theme song. It wasn't just that they didn't have the balls to do it. It was like, do people really want to —

Moore: Well, yeah. Be careful what you create. If that's your backstory and then you don't take it seriously, the audience won't take it seriously. And then what are you engaging in? Then it really does tip over into camp very quickly, and it's hard to sustain camp week to week. I'm trying to think of a successful campy series that just went on week after week, that played it in that key. Maybe A-Team. You could probably make that argument that A-Team was very campy and fun and pretty successful, and yet at it's heart it's a vigilante show, that they have machine guns that never seem to hit anybody ever.

Wired: But a lot of the '80s shows — post-Galactica shows — any of the Stephen J. Cannell cop shows in a way were like that.

Moore: Yeah, I'm trying to remember — what are those shows, really?

Wired: Magnum P.I. , Riptide

Moore: But that's different. That's P.I. — that's private investigator. You have a lot more leeway with that genre than sci-fi, because there are so many colors, from Sam Spade to Magnum. Some of them are a wink and a nod more than others.

But yeah, you can say strip it down to these dark premises and wonder if audiences are going to follow you there. that's a legitimate question, a question the network asked us over and over again the first season. They were very concerned about how dark the show was. They literally thought that no one would watch the series after the first episode, 33. There was a point where they didn't want us to air 33 as the first episode.

Wired: Really?

Moore: They were, like, so scared of it. That was a whole big fight, and they eventually backed down, but there was a brief period where they talked about not airing them in order. They did one of the infamous controlled tests of the miniseries just before the mini went on the air — like four weeks before we aired or something, one of those marketing testing focus group things. They watched the series. It was one of the worst rated ever.

The company that did it sent back this cover page report that just said, nobody likes any of these characters, we see no reason this should ever become a series, there's no identification with any of it, it's too dark, it's too scary. And the network, all the blood drained from their face when they heard that, because it was too late. Fortunately, it was too late. The show was done, locked, in the can. I think we edited back, we cut out a couple more shots of gore here and there to throw them a bone, but it was way too late in the process to make any serious adjustments. It went to air with this sense of fatalism on the part of the network that, well, were boned here, they're going to hate it, it's too dark. Then they were shocked when the numbers were so good. It really shocked them. It made them reevaluate.

It's like money versus content. They were like, this show shouldn't work. The testing said it won't. But it's all those stories. Seinfeld had one of the worst testings in history. too.

Wired: Although, you did a thing that the Star Trek shows don't do and that Seinfeld didn't do either. You were there from the start. It didn't take you the first two seasons to ramp up to three quality seasons.

Moore: Yeah, it's interesting. Some shows hit it out of the gate, and other shows need time to build. The original Star Trek series hit it out of the gate. The first season is really good, very, very good.

Wired: Yes.

Moore: The third season is not so good. Any real fan of the old show, and there still are a few of us around, will tell you that the third season of the original series is the one that everyone makes fun of, that lives in pop culture.

Wired: Spock's Brain.

Moore: Spock's Brain, and Kirk's big belly, and you know —

Wired: Space hippies.

Moore: Whereas all the subsequent Star Trek series were good by the third season. They needed those first two years to find their feet.

Wired: So, you described yourself as a fan of the original Star Trek series. Were you a geek as a kid? Is this the stuff that you did for fun?

Moore: I grew up in an interesting environment. I grew up in a small town called Chowchilla, California, which was about 4,500 people, and the way I grew up was in a town that was small enough where I could be a member of the marching band and the quarterback of the football team. I could love Star Trek and still be accepted as one of the jocks. I could really live in both worlds because everybody kind of did. It was just small enough.

I grew up with a big interest in a lot of nerdy stuff, but it didn't marginalize me in my peer group, and I was involved in a lot of other things, too. So it was sort of surprising to me when I left that environment and went into the big outside world, and people were like, marching band is like the geekiest of the geek, and I'm like, Well, really, because it wasn't in my town. And, you know, You're a Star Trek fan? Oh my god, You're such a nerd. I'm like, Well, but I was the quarterback!

Wired: You should have led with that.

Moore: Yeah, you find out you have to lead with that. You find out, oh, I have to tell you this. So yeah, I still love a lot of that stuff, but just never grew up with the self-image and the inferiority complex that seems to go with everyone elses experiences of loving this material, of being that kid in the class that everyone made fun of. I just never thought of myself that way.

Wired: There's a lot of religion on the show. Are you religious?

Moore: I was raised Catholic, and I'm a recovering Catholic now. I became interested in various Eastern religions, and now I've sort of settled into somewhat of an agnosticism and sort of a general interest in the subject. I think in the show I felt it was a part that was really noticeably missing from the Star Trek universe. Gene Roddenberry felt very strongly that by the 23rd and 24th centuries that all the major religions had vanished and it was all regarded as superstition. That was his view of the future. I just never quite bought that. I thought, that's part of who we are, it's part of what it is to be human, to seek to answer the questions of: Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more? What happens after you die? It didn't seem like that was going to go away.

So I sort of felt its absence in the Star Trek universe, and then felt like that was something I would really portray in Galactica. And then as the Cylons became human-looking, when we decided that they would look like us, it just raised a whole host of issues that went in this direction: How they thought of themselves, why they wanted to kill humanity, that they saw themselves as humanity's children but felt they could never really come into their own until they had killed their parents. Already You're dealing with these metaphysical and physical arenas.

And then there was that moment in the miniseries where I just saw on the page that had Number Six say "God is love" to Baltar and one network executive just seized on it and said that's a great thing, I'm just shocked, you should play more of that. I just took the chance and went with it — decided that that was going to be a big part of the show, and the show just lent itself to it. The Greco-Roman names established in the original, Apollo and Athena, all these characters and references to astrology and all that, I just felt like, that's an easy step from there to say that the colonies are polytheistic. And making the Cylons monotheistic played into my own love of history and the idea of monotheism driving out paganism in Europe and Western civilization — I liked that. I liked having our heroes be on the other side of that equation.

Moore: And OK, religion is a fascinating topic and you can deal with it more aggressively and interestingly in science fiction than you can doing it in a contemporary show. Every contemporary show that tries to do it gets screamed off the air, everybody screams and complains. The Book of Daniel, the one with the pill-popping priest — oh my god, you would have thought that the world was ending because you can't write in that environment, you can't be creative. It becomes a stupid political argument with the networks and stupid advertisers and interest groups.

Wired: Or it's Touched by an Angel.

Moore: Yeah, then you have to go so, like, inoffensive and soft that it just becomes pap, and who wants to write that? In sci-fi, you get a pass. You can play with these things and get into them because everyone agrees it's not truly Christianity and it's not really Islam and it's not really all the things were all so freaked out about. Even though it is.

Wired: Your writing process — which you've been polite enough to record as a podcast —

Moore: ...and which I'm way behind on.

Wired: There's so much formalism in the way you put together the episodes. Does that help or hinder that creative process of finding things on the page?

Moore: It helps, but you have to sort of have a structure to work from. What those years at Trek really instilled in me was a great sense of structure and story. The writers would sit in rooms with big white dry erase boards for hours, days on end, and we broke stories down in minute detail: Teaser. Beat 1. Exterior space. Enterprise in orbit. Beat 2. Interior, bridge. Picard, Data, Riker, Troi at their positions. An exercise is going on. Data notices something. We would break them down, scene by scene, almost to dialog levels. We'd spend hours doing it, rearranging them, reshuffling, writing again. You do that process for years on end and it builds in a sense of story, so I have a muscle memory of story that I can kind of stroke through quickly in the room, but the basics are there.

It's like studying the classics. You build this foundation of formalism and then you understand the rules, and now you understand how to break all the rules and still tell a coherent story, and you can come at them from different directions and realize there are things people say that's just crap. People will tell you, oh, the hero has to be active, you have to make your hero active all the time. Well, no you don't. Anybody ever see Casablanca? Rick is the most reactive, non-proactive character in the history of film. He doesn't do anything in that movie until the end, and You're riveted by it.

Wired: He does let them play "La Marseilles."

Moore: He does let them play.

Wired: On that tip then, What's the worst corner you and the team have written yourselves into, and how'd you get out?

Moore: Some of that were doing right now as we wrap up the show. Now it's like, OK, what does that mean exactly? Now that we've gotten to that point, OK, what does that mean? And, you know, how could they be the final four Cylons? How does downloading work? There are a lot of those kinds of questions that we struggled with and felt like, wow, how do we get out of this? And usually our season cliffhangers painted us into pretty good little corners.

Wired: I'm delighted to hear that.

Moore: Oh, yeah. And that's part of the fun of the show to me. It's dangerous, it's scary, we don't always make it. But I like that. It's what keeps it interesting, seeing what you can pull off and challenging yourself. What do we do with this? Where is this going to go? You jump ahead a year in time and decide You're just going to live with that. I didn't really know what the rest of that season was going to be, and that's a pretty big corner. There's no going back, you couldn't do, oh, it's all a dream.

OK, now we've reshuffled all these characters and lives and where do we go?

Wired: Do you have favorite episodes? Least favorite episode?

Moore: I love 33 still. It's a really interesting episode. The structure was non-traditional. I thought it was a great way to open the series. It raised the bar on the miniseries in a lot of ways. I like the fact that we didn't just pick them up sailing through space, they've been OK for 10 days, and then oh, no the Cylons are coming again. I liked that there was a breathless quality to it, and it was filmed really well, good performances.

And then the jump ahead a year in time (Lay Down Your Burdens) is one of my favorite moments.

Black Market still is a very disappointing episode for me. The episode where Billy dies is disappointing and doesn't quite work. Some things just didn't pan out.

Wired: Do you feel any connection to, or responsibility for, some of the other long-arc science fiction popular on the air now? Like Lost and Heroes?

Moore: Oh, not really. I just assumed that people have always liked serialized storytelling. They weren't quite applying it to this genre so much. I never thought about it like that — that we bore any responsibility for people doing that as well.

Wired: I ask because I know that things on television generally come in waves, so, like, in some seasons everyone has a lot of Westerns or private detectives.

Moore: Yeah, I think Lost bears more of the responsibility for that than we do. It's the difference between cable and network. They're just a bigger pop culture phenomenon, and the fact that they hooked a big audience into a long-range arc like that makes everybody else sit up and take notice. The fact we did it on Sci Fi Channel, people were appreciative and we got a lot of critical acclaim, but it wasn't getting the big dollars. When you get the big dollars, everyone starts paying attention.

Wired: What do you watch for pleasure?

Moore: I watch a lot of Seinfeld. I'm trying to think of what I have TiVo'd. I watch The Colbert Report, a lot of news programming. Charlie Rose. I got into Breaking Bad. That is a really challenging, interesting show. I watch Robot Chicken, which I think is one of the best comedy shows in the last 10 years.

Wired: It's safe to say they love you, too.

Moore: I was very surprised. I didn't even know my guys were doing that episode last season. I just was watching my Robot Chicken, and all of a sudden all my actors showed up. I called them up, I was like, what the fuck? No one told me! What's this, you guys?

I used to really like The Boondocks. That was very daring.

Wired: You mentioned TiVo. Do you think you benefited from DVD box sets, TiVo timeshifting, the ability for people to go watch all of season one?

Moore: Absolutely. It's a totally different world, and it plays to our audience. The fans of this genre traditionally lead all these technologies. The early adopters, the people who are very facile with computers and tech, and they will find the show in all these different formats. It absolutely has helped us.

Wired: Even being able to tell the non-fans, look, just go get the box set?

Moore: It's great. That phenomenon has definitely occurred, too, where people who would not sample the show, who wouldn't tune into something on Sci Fi Channel, much less called Battlestar Galactica, people would then press on them a DVD. They became fans. That happened a lot. People just put it on their iTunes. I bemoan the loss of NBC Universals relationship with iTunes for this show.

Wired: What's the deal with Caprica? What's the schedule now?

Moore: It's busy. Caprica is going. We're in pre-production. We have a director. They're starting to cast right now.

Wired: Are you going to show-run?

Moore: Well, it's just a pilot for now. There's no order for a series, so there's nothing to show-run. There's just a pilot to produce, and I'm one of the producers. The script has been written for two years, so there's not a lot of heavy lifting on the page.

Virtuality is a pilot that's been ordered by Fox Broadcasting and that Mike Taylor and I wrote. Were prepping that as we speak as well. We don't know where it's going to shoot, but it'll probably start shooting in July. And that's a two-hour, and well see when and if they order it to series.

Wired: It looked like Caprica wasn't going to get a green light.

Moore: Oh, I'd given up on it. I'd frankly just given up on it. It was on the back burner. They never said definitively no. They just said, well, not now. And they kept saying, well, not now. You just give up at a certain point. And I was sure it was never going to happen. And then during the writers strike I literally read it in TV Guide that they were doing it. Somebody said, did you see the mention in TV Guide? They're talking about Caprica.

I was like, OK.

Wired: Do you think NBC Universal, Sci Fi Channel were happy with the ratings-to-money-to-time ratio on Galactica?

Moore: I think it would depend on who you ask. If you talked to the money people, to the bean-counting contingent, they would probably say no. They would probably say it's a very expensive show that never got huge ratings, and that's the bottom line. I think that the creative execs, the marketing people would say it was definitely worth it in that it got so much attention for Sci Fi. I won't say it put them on the map, but it certainly boosted their profile. It became a show they were proud of, that garnered a lot of awards, and that allowed them to seek other talent to come work at their network.

Even the bean counters, if you wrestled them to the ground and got them to speak the truth, would have to admit that the show, like every other show, will definitely earn money. They all earn profit. DVD sales on this show are huge, internationals are very strong, and the library value of this show is tremendous. It will be around for a long time. They all foresee using it, leasing multiples, any format that comes along they'll be putting Battlestar Galactica on it. They will make money on the show.

Wired: And they can run it five nights a week.

Moore: They'll run it forever. It'll be downloadable, streaming. DVDs will die eventually, but there will always be some way you can get this show, and there will always be some way NBC Universal will make money from it.

Wired: You've been committed to those other forms, too. Webisodes, the blog, the podcasts. What's the importance of those?

Moore: Now I think they're almost expected. Now they're part of what it is to do a television show, especially in this genre. This genres fans are very connected to their computers, to all these multiple platforms, and they look for it. They're there to be served, so why wouldn't you serve them? We're planning webisodes for this season. My podcasting will continue, albeit depending on how quick I am about it, it'll happen. The blog is more — I don't know what to do about the blog. I go back to the blog. I created my own blog. I do it in bursts, and then I fall away from it. I find myself without a lot to say sometimes, and that's a fatal flaw in the blogosphere evidently. You're supposed to say something whether it's of value or not.

Wired: The fatal flaw is that people do it anyway.

Moore: Yeah, I just don't have a lot to say. I don't have a topic for a blog, so I don't write one till I think of something or the mood hits me. But I think it's great that these things are all out there and available, and certainly any project I do from now on will take advantage of these platforms.

Wired: Because you build loyalty?

Moore: Yeah, it increases the base. People that love your show want to expect more of it. Here's a way to expect more of it. Why wouldn't you provide that to them? it's up to the people in the black building to figure out how to monetize it. Here's a viewer who tunes into the show once a week for an hour, and now I have the ability to bring that viewer to a Web site for multiple hours beyond a single viewing, involve them in the show in many different ways. You guys figure it out. Sell something to this person. Put advertising in front of this person. Offer them other things to buy, expose them to other shows. That's not my problem. I'm just providing them a bigger window into the universe they already love.

Wired: Do you like interacting with fans?

Moore: I do, I enjoy it. I like it. I have enough of the fan in me to appreciate what it is to be a fan — to want to get closer and understand how the sausage is made, to narrow more details of whos in the united federation of planets and where Kirk was born. I get all that, and if I have those answers, I'm happy to provide them. I enjoy what I do. I get a kick out of it, I think it's fun, and I like sharing with the people who are interested. You just keep the rest of it at bay.

The danger is that you start reading those boards too closely and you get too wrapped up in the critics of the show and youll start going, god, the show sucks. You just sort of not fall into shit like that. No one in the writers room really says, well, I was reading on the boards, and they don't like x, y, and z, so we shouldn't do that. That's happened once or twice and it's usually like stampeded to death, like, oh really, they don't like it when we do that? Well that's what were doing. We kind of go the other way. Oh, that'll piss them off? Well let's really piss them off. This'll really piss them off, that'll drive them insane. They'll say, oh, there's this guy who really hates the show, and all he talks about is how much he hates Starbuck. Oh, yeah? OK. Let's do a Starbuck episode.

Wired: Yeah, but tell the truth: When you do the big space battles that just means were bound for an episode of two characters trapped in a turbolift down the line, right?

Moore: Pretty much, yeah. It's still television. You still have to do all that shit.

Wired: You just directed. What was that like?

Moore: It was tremendous. It was an amazing experience. I approached it with a fair degree of fear, like, wow, I've never done this, do I know what I'm doing? Will I look like an idiot? And I just tried it. But I have a cast and a crew that made it easy for me, and I enjoyed it, and I directed something that I'd written. It was a thing I'd never done, which is, you write a script and you play the movie in your head as you write it. At least I do. And one of the first things you have to lose in this business is that movie, because it's never going to be that way. You write the scene and envision them coming in camera left and sit down on this line, and then you watch the dailies and they come in camera right and stand through the whole thing. You just have to let go of that. You're handing your script over to other people who interpret it and realize it, and when you're directing, you can realize that. You can make the film I'm trying to make in my head. And yet you're still free to play around with it and the actors bring stuff and change stuff, and there are still surprises. But you can actually create what it is you're trying to achieve. That was great. I really enjoyed it, it didn't freak me out. I was calm. I made my days. I saved money.

I liked it. I liked being the guy who had to answer all the questions. I liked people coming up constantly and asking, should it be this or should it be that? It's that. Should we go here or there? Go there. Why are we doing this? This is why were doing this. What does this line mean? This is what the line means. Do you need coverage on this guy? No, I don't need coverage. I liked that. It was energizing and fun.

My son came with me. He's 9, and he sat on the set next to me for, like, four days and I couldn't pry him off that set. He sat there with his headphones and just lived in it, loved it, and I could kind of see the show through his eyes, and it was precious.

Senior editor Adam Rogers (adam_rogers@wired.com) wrote about Cirque du Soleil in issue 15.06.

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