Between his very well-known and very popular blog and his directing of many popular TV shows, including Heroes and Smallville, Greg Beeman has created quite an impression among sci-fi genre TV fans.
Beeman’s latest TV project is Falling Skies, a new series executive produced by Steven Spielberg that airs Sunday nights at 10PM on TNT. The first two episodes of the series – which follows the aftermath of an alien attack – aired on June 19. Greg Beeman directed the second hour and he also helmed the third hour, which runs Sunday.
KSiteTV had the opportunity to interview Mr. Beeman about the series earlier this week. Within, he talked about Falling Skies and he also discussed his return to Smallville earlier this year for the series finale. Enjoy the interview and if you like it, please link to it rather than copying and pasting onto other websites. Beware of some minor spoilers for Falling Skies while you’re here.
If you missed the premiere of Falling Skies, it’s available at iTunes.
Questions are posted in bold; Mr. Beeman’s answers are not.
What can you tell us about this week’s Falling Skies episode, “Prisoner of War?”
It’s a pretty ambitious episode that I am pretty excited about. I directed it. Tom goes to rescue his son with unexpected consequences. We get an up close and personal battle with one of the aliens for the first time ever, and there’s a couple of big reveals and a big twist, so I think you’re going to be happy.
The show has some pretty impressive encounters with Skitters and Mechs. How are those scenes accomplished?
It’s funny. I have some experience with this with Smallville, but Mr. Spielberg was very helpful. He had done this a lot. So it’s funny. He gave us a lot of tips — “make sure you build a model of a set that is of the right scale.” So basically, we’d build out of plastic pipes, something that was 10 feet tall, and it was the right width. Just kind of an exoskeleton. We would do a rehearsal take which we would film where a prop man would stand in holding this big ten foot thing and walk it around while the actors acted it out.
I think that does two things – it makes sure that the camera is seeing the right dimensions and it also gives the actor eyelines to remember for when they do it. So basically, you do a take with a guy in shorts and flip flops walking around holding a big plastic shape, and the actor acts to that, and then you do another take immediately after that without it, and that seems to work. I guess that was the technique Mr. Spielberg used on Jurassic Park mostly, so he taught us how to do it.
When it comes to the Skitters, which are the six legged creatures, there was no Skitter built for the pilot, but we kind of made the decision that digital Skitters are very expensive. It was also very expensive to build one prosthetic Skitter, but we did a cost analysis and decided that it was more cost effective to build. So we built a prosthetic Skitter that had an actor in it, and two people with remote controls working the eyes and the faces. It also took two other people to work the legs. It took five total puppeteers to work the prosthetic Skitter. I have some cool stuff coming up on my blog next week that will show the behind the scenes of the Skitter and how it worked.
There’s a big Skitter battle in “Prisoner of War,” and I would say two-thirds of the shots in the battle are with this practical Skitter and probably a third, maybe only 25% of the shots are a digital Skitter. Pretty much any time you see its full body it’s digital, and any time you see a partial body it’s the creature. It was a very pieced together sequence that took a lot of planning, and a lot of separate shots that were done – sometimes at very different times with very different elements. Sometimes it was Noah Wyle with nothing; sometimes it was Noah Wyle with the prosthetics; sometimes it was the stunt double with the prosthetic. It’s a very elaborate sequence that had to be well planned and pieced together.
I loved the danger of the Skitter inside the cage [in the episode].
I think it was a really interesting idea that Graham Yost and Mark Verheiden and the writers had come up with. I don’t want to give anything away, but it is called “Prisoner of War,” and when you have a prisoner of war who doesn’t speak your same language, what do you do? Do you torture it? Do you want to learn to communicate with it? What do you do?
This is another area where Steven Spielberg had a lot of opinions. He and Bob Rodat both are real history buffs and are real war buffs, and they were always relating Falling Skies back to war movies, and World War II movies in particular. When you capture a prisoner, do you befriend it to get information, or do you torture it to get information, or do you even bother getting information out of it? So a lot of interesting questions came up, and Mr. Spielberg and Bob Rodat in particular were always referencing back to historical examples to get to our points of reference.
Was it important to have different characters having different reactions to the Skitter being there?
This is where the writers did a great job, in my opinion. They differentiated the characters. It’s kind of like the same process that an actor goes through. You really establish “Who is this person, and what is their take on the world?” What kind of person are they? Are they good? Are they bad? Do they trust people, or do they not trust people? Are they generally positive, or are they generally negative? What’s their history? And then based on knowing that, you can kind of have them react appropriately.
Sarah Carter was someone you worked with back on Smallville. Can you talk about how she was cast as Margaret?
It’s funny. There was this character that I think was a very interesting character on paper. Really compelling, because she’d been through such brutality with the group that she was in, and the only way for her to survive to work within the group. Still, though, it was a very tough character, and as her story goes forward there’s even more. She’s got an interesting backstory. We were reading local actresses in Toronto and we’d seen a lot of people, but we weren’t reading any actors from the States at that point in time for that role.
I literally was just driving down the road one day and she popped into my head. Sarah Carter! I don’t know why, because Alicia Baker was a very different role, and her role on Shark was a very different role, but I know her a little bit, and I know she’s a very intense actress. Sometimes her intensity isn’t always seen in all of the roles she’s done, but I knew it from the Alicia Baker role and from working with her personally. So I just thought of her.
I didn’t even contact her directly. I called the casting directors and I suggested her name, and they got in contact with her, and she came in and read. I stayed in the background, frankly, because I’ve always found historically that if I push an actor, sometimes it kind of backfires. So I had the idea, I threw it out there, she came in and read for the Dreamworks guys, she went on tape… There were a couple actors who went on tape and Steven Spielberg selected her out of the two or three actors that read. So it was good for me, because I really like her as a person, and I have always enjoyed the collaboration we have.
I actually didn’t direct her first Smallville episode. James Marshall did. Even though I had met with her in L.A. and talked to her a lot about the character before she went up to Smallville the first time, but then I directed “Unsafe” (in Season 4). There’s a moment in “Unsafe” when she has just been ice skating with Clark and then she’s got this styrofoam cup and she’s drinking hot cocoa. And I don’t know… I felt like I had contributed to the performance, but she just created a moment as she was sipping cocoa that just seemed so spontaneous to me. It was one of my favorite moments I’ve ever directed, so I’ve always felt very fond of Sarah, and I was very happy when Steven Spielberg selected her and it all worked out.
The second episode brought in Colin Cunningham as Pope as well. Can you talk about casting him?
Casting Pope was another very challenging role, but the character was so juicy and the writing was so good. We read a lot of people for that role. But truthfully, a lot of the actors did not attack the role with the relish that they needed to, and Colin Cunningham did. Again, that was a big process. A lot of people went on tape, a lot of people re-read. Actors were flown to Toronto for me to work with them, and eventually, again, Steven Spielberg really does make all of the final decisions on the big roles. Not on every small role, but on a role like that, a series regular, he made the call.
Since you have kids yourself, could you identify with Tom and his journey to rescue Ben?
It’s funny. I’m not consciously aware of how this relates to my life as a father, but I seem to bring a kind of father-figure role to my job everywhere I go. As you know, when I’ve written about and interviewed about it, I think of the Smallville [cast] as like my kids. I think of Tom Welling, and Kristin Kreuk, and Allison Mack, and Erica Durance as like my kids, and I’m always so proud of them. I always feel very paternal about them. I have a paternal energy, and I worry about my kids, so I do relate to Tom’s story in that sense, but I don’t as a director think about it too much, truthfully. As a director I actually try not to intellectualize at all. The truth is I’ve learned over the years to try and just go with my gut feeling; be very intuitive, and I try not to analyze and intellectualize, because it never leads to great decisions for me.
Were certain character departures and arrivals throughout the season planned?
It’s a pretty well planned out series, truthfully.
One thing that’s nice about doing only ten episodes versus 22… Smallville was a very different type of show because the network wanted it to be very episodic. They wanted contained stories, and they didn’t want long thru-lines, which for the most part makes it very viewable, but sometimes I know the fans got frustrated because things would be brought up and then dropped immediately. Like when Alicia Baker is killed, and then the next episode Clark’s happily playing football and seems to have forgotten all about it. But that was something that the network really wanted, was individual episodes. Heroes on the other hand, had these long, sprawling, big-picture stories, but in some ways to plan for 22 episodes is really hard, because you get in at the beginning of a season and the writers dig in, and you can dig in five or six episodes ahead, but sometimes you do go down a road and you haven’t really figured out how you’re going to get out on the other side.
A ten-episode chunk, a cable chunk, even 10 or 12 episodes is a number that you can really assimilate as a writing staff, and you can really plan your season.
Lourdes has faith in a time that other characters seem to be losing their own faith. Was that an important message to try to get across?
Yes. Again, it’s a theme that is important to Steven Spielberg, and it’s a theme that’s important to me. There are a lot of big questions that are relevant to our moment in history right now, and that’s one aspect that I think is important.
Wait! That’s not all! Read Part 2 of this interview, where Mr. Beeman talks about returning for the Smallville finale, the locations of Falling Skies, conflict among the 2nd Mass., and more!