CCI XTRA: Producer Mark Verheiden on "Galactica," "Teen Titans," More

Thu, August 2nd, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

TV/Film
Chris Ullrich, Contributing Writer

"Battlestar Galactica" is one of the most popular sci-fi shows currently on television. With each new episode, millions of fans are glued to their TVs, watching the continuing action, trials, tribulations and the emotional rollercoasters of Adama, Starbuck, Apollo, President Roslyn and the rest of the cast.

With Season Three all wrapped up and fans eagerly awaiting the start of Season Four, CBR News caught up with "Battlestar Galactica" Co-Executive Producer Mark Verheiden at Comic-Con International to get the scoop on what we might see in the upcoming season and checked in with his other current writing projects, including a "Teen Titans" movie, and asked the author if he prefers "Star Trek" or "Star Wars."

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Fist off, Mark, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I know you're busy with the Con but we appreciate it.

Sure, its no problem. My pleasure.

So, let's get right into it. As it's Comic-Con time right now, I'm curious -- how many times have you been here?

I've been coming to the Con every year since 1983. First as a fan; I buy tons of comics, go to panels -- especially all the Golden Age stuff with those guys like Stan Lee.

Like many people have said about their own careers, was Stan Lee one of the reasons you wanted to get into comics?

Yeah, his writing was a tremendous influence on me. In fact, sometimes I'm in the writers room on "Galactica" and there a bunch of guys there who are fans of Sam Peckinpaw or John Ford and I tell them, "You know, guys, everything I need to know about writing I learned from Stan Lee." Of course, they all laugh.

With respect of course. They were laughing with you, not at you.

No, they were laughing at me, but they didn't understand that when I was growing up, [Stan Lee books] were the formative stuff for me and I got into comics around the Golden time with Stan, around issue 50 or 60 of "The Fantastic Four" or something. So, Stan's writing means a lot to me.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer and when did you know you wanted to do it for a living?

Well, those are two separate questions, of course, but I knew I wanted to be a writer from when I was like 5 so I always knew I wanted to do it and that actually made life simple. I knew what I wanted to do. I didn't know how I was going to do it, had no idea how I would break in and didn't know if it going to be comics or movies because I always loved movies. When I came out here from Portland, I had a day job at the LA Times and I always figured that was a 12-hour interruption of my writing day.

What did you do at the Times?

Well, that's my one joke. "What did I do at the Times? Well, that's classified." [smiles] I worked in the classified adds for five years.

So, how did you then break in and start getting paid to write then?

Well, I moved to LA and I knew nobody. A couple friends moved down with me and got jobs in town. One worked in sound and I begged him to let me come in and pitch the producer some movie ideas and he ended up making one called "Terror Squad" starring "The Rifleman" Chuck Connors. Then he bought another and that was pretty much it. Later, I could point to those films when Hollywood people ask me if I've had anything produced and say "yes."

So then how did you get started in Comics?

Well, right after I had moved down from Portland some friends ended up starting a company called Dark Horse up there and they asked me to write something for them after seeing someone else would buy my stuff. So I created this character called "The American" for them, wrote it and they published it. It came out in 1986. I went full time writing at 5:30 PM May 5, 1988.

You know the exact moment?

Yes, I can remember very clearly when I walked out of the LA Times for the last time and became a full-time writer. It was a great moment for me that you don't forget.

A lot of writers and other creative people we've spoken to in the past have that first check they ever got for something framed and on the wall. Do you have anything like that?

No, I cashed that first check. [laughs] I remember joking about this on a panel once at Comic-Con that I got $500 for that first script I sold. People laughed but I tell you, it was the best $500 bucks I ever made.

Some people come into writing because they are frustrated actors who want to be directors, any thoughts on directing someday?

It's something I might want to try but you really need to have a burning desire to make it happen. I don't know if I have a burning desire to direct. I have a burning desire to write, which is why I do it. To control your own material and protect yourself you might want to direct, especially in features. But I don't know, maybe in TV first and see.

There's more control over your material writing for TV?

Yeah. Like on "Battlestar," I'm the writer and producer so I get to have a lot of control of the material, which is the inverse in features. It's funny, I really understood that when I worked on a movie with Bruce Campbell last year. I wrote it and he directed it but it was weird, I would work at "Battlestar" where I'm essentially second in command, running the writers room when Ron [Moore] and David [Eick] are not there.

But when I go to the set of the movie its like they basically say to me, "There's no reason for you to be here; your job's already done." Not in a mean way, they were all great people but they didn't really need me at that point because they were already shooting.

You got a chair with your name on it at least?

Yeah, I got a chair and I got to do a cameo in the film, which was fun. But it's just vastly different and reminded me of that difference between features and TV. With TV, the writer is the boss, usually. With features, the director runs everything.

So of your three mediums, features, TV and comics, which do you prefer?

Well, in a perfect world all of them as I've gotten to do in the past an hopefully will continue to have the opportunity to do. Hey, it's a great problem to have. There's no poor me here, I'm very fortunate. Writing TV is just very time consuming and doesn't always allow for much else, especially with something like "Battlestar."

So, you're running the writers room now on "Battlestar," when did that happen?

I guess this year, sorta, when Ron and David are not there. When they're not there, basically I'm the one who tries to keep the stories going. It's my job to keep pushing it forward.

Do you have a good idea where the story is going?

MA: I think we all do but there's got to be someone who finally says that its time to go in a certain direction. I could even be wrong and you might go back to another idea but at some point you say "that's it" and start pushing everyone in that direction. My job is to say, "Well, let's try that one" and then get everyone to go in that direction.

So you're following a particular plan for the series? Something that was conceived from the beginning?

I can't say exactly what was in Ron Moore's or David Eick's head right from the beginning, but I can say that we've always known pretty much where we want to get to at the end but the actual path has been relatively open.

Usually what would happen is that before the beginning of each season, Ron and David would get together and brainstorm certain touchpoints for the season and we would aim for those. Stuff like we want to go here, we want to make sure these characters do this. Within that, there is always a certain flexibility.

I always say it's like having a show where you want your characters to eventually get to Texas. There are a lot of different routes you can take to get there. You can go directly there or head way north or even approach from the South through Mexico. But sooner or later you end up in Texas.

And Texas in this case is Earth?

Maybe. I will say this, we definitely know how we want the show to end but there's still a little flexibility like what characters will be there, who's human, who's Cylon, that kind of thing.

The one thing we do debate on is more of a question of how the show should end. Hopelessness versus hopeful, the tone in the show and how do we want to end up. Is it a good ending or is it more bittersweet?

Knowing the show, it's probably more likely to be bittersweet.

Knowing the show, it's more likely to be nuclear holocaust. [smiles] Just kidding.

You're filming the final season now?

Yes, we just wrapped episode seven and are starting episode eight next week, which I wrote. So we're pretty fairly well along. Although, we count as the first two episodes this "Razor" TV movie that will be on in November.

That's mostly about the Pegasus, right?

Yes. What happens to it and how, after the Cylon attack, it became the ship it did where the XO gets shot for refusing an order from Commander Kane, that kind of thing. In direct contrast to the Galactica which went a different way.

Well, they aren't exactly the most moral bunch either. Except for maybe Helo. He seems particularly moral or at least follows a code.

No, that's true, what with the President rigging an election, all the mutinies, considering throwing your friend out of an airlock, that kind of thing.

We think of Helo as a person who follows his own set of instincts, right or wrong. He considers his options carefully, makes a decision and then accepts the consequences.

He's sort of the moral center of the show.

Yeah, in some ways he is.

This is the last season of the show for sure?

Yes.

And then a movie?

Not that I know of. At least, not yet. Although, as a fan I would love to see it happen, but I don't know how it would work exactly.

Its been rumored that its Glen Larson, who has the rights to a feature version of "Galactica," who is holding things up.

I've heard that but I don't know for sure if that's the wrench that's holding things up of even if there is any interest in doing a feature at all. Really, at the moment we're just focused on making sure we wrap up the show in the most satisfying way possible so if you watched all four years of "Battlestar" you don't walk away and say "what the hell" when its over.

You don't want to leave fans hanging.

Right. I've been on shows that get cancelled or just end but this is pretty much the first time I've been on a show where you're working towards a definite ending. It's more like a feature that way. Or, I kinda like to think of it as a long, four year miniseries.

So how did you end up on "Battlestar"?

Well, I was working on "Smallville" for three years and then I did a pilot. Then, one day I got a call from David Eick who asked me to come work on "Battlestar." Of course, when he first asked me to do it I said, "no, are you kidding me?" I hadn't watched the show so I didn't know what it was about.

Then I watched it and called him back to say I would be happy to do it and in fact would be honored to do it. That was about episode six of season two when I joined the show.

Judging from your initial reaction, do you think the show would get more respect if it were not sci-fi or maybe if it was a cop show set in modern times?

Well yeah, the name "Battlestar Galactica" doesn't do the show very many favors outside of sci-fi fans. But really, if you took the show and these same characters and made them a modern cop show, lets say, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't get to do as much of the political stuff we get away with because its sci-fi.

Because we're one step away we get to tackle metaphors for religious strife, war, political corruption. I mean we had our characters as suicide bombers. You probably couldn't do that on a regular show cop show on a network. That's not a slam against networks but I'm pretty sure we couldn't do it there.

It was an interesting premise; the heroes of the show were effectively the insurgents.

Yes, our characters were the insurgents and the Cylons were the oppressors.

When you make an episode like that do you decide in advance to do it to make a statement of some kind?

We've talked about that in the writer's room. Not that it was ever a case of "we won't do it" but more of a case of "how?" Obviously, we're impacted by modern events but I know that Ron, when he wrote those two episodes, was really thinking more of Vichy France and less about an opportunity to "do Iraq."

There have been occupations and insurgency throughout history. I think the fact that since we had our characters become suicide bombers it skewed more towards Iraq but we also thought it was just a bunch of interesting stories to tell and we wanted to tell them in the most effective way possible.

Can you tell us anything about season 4?

Well, I haven't seen much of it yet but I can say we're doing a lot of really interesting character stuff. We're taking the characters in directions nobody will see coming. We look at each show and the world there in is important, 30 thousand people left being chased by Cylons. But once you get past that, which is a lot, we always look at each episode and ask "what is it about our guys, what is the core emotional story in this and how can we take that in a new direction?"

Yeah, the characters really go though a lot. Like poor Colonel Tigh.

Well, it's not over for him yet. [laughs]

Especially now that he may be a Cylon.

He's definitely a Cylon. All four are Cylons. We're not pulling that back. That's not a joke or something like "Dallas" where Bobby appears in the shower. It's not a dream sequence. It's real. They're Cylons.

What about Starbuck?

Watch the show. That plays an important part, where Starbuck has been for two months and now she's back. Where she's been and what she's been doing is important for the rest of the series.

Shifting away from "Battlestar," you're also writing the "Teen Titans" movie?

Yes I am. I think the movie has been in development for awhile and they wanted a new take so I went in there and gave them my ideas and my take on it, discussed it with Akiva Goldsman and I guess they liked what I had to say. So now I'm in the middle of it.

Can you give us any idea of the plot or which characters may be appearing?

Well, I'm still writing it so not really at the moment, mostly because I don't know for sure yet. One thing I can tell you is that there will be a Nightwing story and Robin is in it, too. Take from that what you will. We'll be dealing with a transitional period in the lives of the Teen Titans. It will be a huge, fun action movie but it's the characters first. What makes them interesting and exciting? That's how I approach any story.

It also won't be the Titans as young adults or anything. It will definitely be the "Teen Titans." I'm also looking to the work of Marv Wolfman and George Perez as the touchstone of inspiration for the film. I'm a friend of Marv and I've talked about the movie with him so his influence will definitely be felt.

Okay, Mark, last question. You're obviously a sci-fi fan so to see what kind of sci-fi fan you really are: "Star Trek" or "Star Wars?"

"Star Trek" for sure with the original cast. That was my show and I always felt like the characters on the show really had a genuine affection for each other. Not like the characters in later series, which seemed sort of cold and distant. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Checkov, those are my guys.

Okay, Mark, thanks for your time. See you next year at Comic-Con.

Thank you and have a great rest of the Con.

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