Post Thu Feb 17, 2011 7:54 pm

Letting Go

February 14, 2011 | by Chad Colvin

As a television producer, N. John Smith has had a long and very fruitful career with a portfolio that stretches back to the mid-1970′s. His contributions to the Stargate franchise are innumerable — as he’s been a guiding production force at Bridge Studios in Vancouver since 1997 when his tenure began with the Stargate SG-1 Season One episode “Bloodlines.”

Ironically, our first interview with Smith also comes at a time of crossroads for the producer who, after so many years in the industry, has stepped back on many previous involvements (including the Stargate franchise) to concentrate more on things that are personal to him: hobbies, passions, and expanded time with family and friends.

GateWorld caught up with N. John Smith earlier last year when he was a guest on the Creation Entertainment Official Stargate Convention Tour. During our discussion with him, he talks about how he (by chance) began working in the industry, his relationships with the cast and crew, the difficulties in shooting two series at once, how the industry has changed in the past generation, his reasons for stepping away, and more!

NOTE: You can go to the website and listen to the interview, or keep reading for the transcribed version.

GateWorld: John, it’s great to finally sit down with you and talk to you!

N. John Smith: Good to be here.

GW: Tell us a bit about how you got your start in the industry. You’ve said in the past that this business was something that sort of chose you, and you got into it by default.

NJS: I did. Well, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation wanted to do a television series basically based on what I did for a living. Years ago, I was what you call a beach comber. Which on the west coast of British Columbia is someone that salvages logs et cetera along the coast. Of course, in Polynesia, it’s a bum that walks along the beaches picking up shells. It’s a legitimate business here. It’s called log salvaging. I got interested in that when I was quite young, and that’s what I did for a living and the CBC — the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – through a fellow, a producer by the name of Phillip Keatley, decided to do a television series based on that particular line of work.

They came to my hometown. We own a building that’s right in — a waterfront building — right in Lower Gibsons where I grew up. That was perfect for the main film set. One of the characters in the series was person by the name of Molly, and she had a kind of a diner/restaurant called Molly’s Reach. And this became the main film set. And I was of course a beach comber, so the production people wandered down the docks and they saw these boats there and they were interested. And they said, “Well, who runs these boats?” My father and I happened to own the boats there. They were interested in using as the main character boats on the show. They asked me if I would be their technical advisor.

So, it was supposed to be a four-month job. And that’s what I did for four months. And then the series was very popular and it went on for 19 years in Canada, 16 of which I did.

GW: A bit more of a time commitment.

NJS: It was a huge time commitment. Of course, I had my other business to run so I couldn’t strictly do that. I had to in those days, I filmed with them during the day when they wanted, and then I’d go get my other work done. I’d work around the clock kind of thing. Just in order, because you never knew if it was going to be the last year. They would get budget money, like early in the spring they’d phone up and say we’re going to be doing it again. So, you never knew. It never was a long-term job in my opinion.

But, over the years of doing that other production companies came to Vancouver. The film industry in BC became a bigger industry. Of course, I was the only person who had boats and equipment working on the water. We kept developing new things. So, I worked on a ton of other productions. Just as a boat operator. Rented the boats or did boats stunts and things like that. And I had done this film for a producer of MGM called Chris Cites. And I managed to do this job that was in their opinion a hard job to do. It wasn’t a hard job at all. But it appeared to be. It impressed this guy. So he phoned me up about three years later. And, he said, “MGM wants to do a production of the Sea Hunt series, and would you be interest in working on it?” I said, “I’ve never done anything like that but sure.”

A local producer by the name of Blair Murdoch owned the project. Another producer, who I knew, he was a director on Beach Combers. I became the production manager on the project. I got permitted into the directors guild. And I’ve never looked back and I have been doing it ever since. So it is kind of interesting. Then years later, Chris Cites ended up doing a television project and I was doing another one for NBC, I guess at the time. And our two shows were airing at opposite times. So, we’d phone up and say, “My ratings are better than yours this week.” It was kind of funny! It was really interesting.

GW: It was like a sibling rivalry?

NJS: It was! He was a terrific guy, and I haven’t talked to Chris for years but [he's] like a very cool, very smart American producer.

GW: For those that are unfamiliar, lets add some detail. What does a producer — whether it is executive or otherwise — have to do on a television show?

NJS: Well, I was basically … even though I got credited as an executive producer … my function was basically being a line producer. And the executive producer credit came along basically because I had been on the show forever. It was sort of a honorary thing. But, my function was mainly line producing.

Part of that job is having a good rapport with the cast. And I did have a good rapport with the cast. I probably knew … the cast would come to me and talk about things. You know, sometimes that they wouldn’t go to other people and talk about it. That was a lot of fun having that relationship with people. It is difficult having a social relationship sometimes with people you work with. But, the cast of SG-1 was really, pretty interesting people. And all of them in their own right normal human beings. As much as an actor can be a normal human being.

So, Rick [Richard Dean Anderson] and I got along like a house on fire. Rick early in his days on SG-1 learned to respect Brad Wright as the executive producer. So Brad got along well with Rick, too. But Rick and I became sort of like brothers. He liked my wife a lot. They are sort of like a brother/sister relationship. We became social friends. We hung out together. He’s been up to my cabin, water skiing. Taught his daughter how to water ski, and stuff. We just became really good friends.
N. John Smith: But my main job as a line producer is being responsible for hiring and firing the crew. And making sure we get the film in the can on budget. And responsibilities of making sure the money that was allotted us to spend over the season was spent and spent judiciously and not over spent. That’s a collaboration between … I’m only as good as the writers. Because the writers can write “we need 50 hot air balloons in this episode”. And that’s what we have got to have. Well, if you can only afford ten, then I’m in trouble. Between the writers collaborating, and OK, this is what we can do. We’d always push for the ultimate limit and try and get as much production value as we could, realizing that if we spent [a million dollars] over on this episode we’d have to save it over the next eight or 10 or whatever.

Bottom line is, at the end of the year, you had to be on budget. For most years, we were on budget. And when we weren’t it was given the grace of MGM who said, “Go ahead spend the extra money.” MGM was a great company to work for. Over the 10 [years], or especially with Charlie [Cohen] over the last few years. It’s been terrific to work with him. He is very understanding. He liked the show. Which is very helpful. If your production people like what you are doing, it makes a difference to us the people who are pulling it off.

GateWorld: In addition to your work producing on Stargate, you were also an executive producer on Sanctuary. What challenges do genre series in general provide that you may not have in other programming?

NJS: You’re talking about the virtual …

GW: Be it virtual [sets] or just genre series [challenges] in general. In terms of the more effects necessary and …

NJS: Well, SG-1 was notoriously a big effects series. It was a bigger series. The budgets reflected that. We spent a lot more money on SG-1 than Sanctuary. Again, on the new show [Stargate Universe], our budgets are double what Sanctuary spends. It’s a different type of show. There is not a lot of action. There is not a lot of big effects. There are effects but nothing the same as a big action show, where you have a huge cast.

I’m not involved with Sanctuary any more. I’m not doing it. I got it going and did the first year. But, you know — sayanora. What’s fun for me more is getting them going and making sure it happens. Once you get the foundation of the project built. Usually, they roll along after that.

GW: You also mentioned in the Q & A that just happened a little bit earlier, that you are kind of stepping back now from SGU.

NJS: I’ve totally stepped back from SGU. I did last year as well. It’s really hard to do that. But when you have a new production team coming in, you have to let them go. I’d come in two or three days a week to the office and see if everything was going good. That was the agreement that I made with Brad. I said, “I’m at the end of the phone line here if you want.” I was fielding a lot a questions from the crew because it was my crew. So I was getting a lot of “Why are we doing this?” “It’s not the same when you’re not here.” And you know all the other things. You’ve got to watch that. You have to let the new guys come in and do what they’ve got to do.

GW: Obviously, there’s other things you want to do with your life. And other paths that you want to explore. But is there a certain sadness that goes along with kind of letting that go?

NJS: Totally! You go from working 15 hours a day with the same group of people [to not at all]. I was spending more time on the film set and with my crew than I was at home with my family. So it makes a difference.

Oh, there is definitely sadness. But I’m fortunate that I have a good life to go to. Like, we built a house up on the coast. And my affiliation with the water has always been something I have missed. I mean I get away on the boat on the weekends. And we had a cabin, and we taught all the kids how to water ski. And I still do a little diving and stuff, but I was really looking forward to getting back on the salt water.

Now I’m out every day. I’ve got more boats now than I had when I was making my living with boats. Not the same type of boat. I like fishing proms and crabs. And I do that and supply our whole neighborhood with fresh seafood. Which is kind of fun. I am going to do some other productions. But I don’t want to work 12 months out the year at it anymore. I would love to do an interesting project. And I am working on a couple of interesting projects but as far as actually going and getting into the grind of it — no.

GW: Life’s too short.

NJS: Well, it’s not [that] life’s too short. But I’ve seen a lot of my friends in this industry pass away a lot younger in life than they should have. I don’t want to be there. I really enjoy other aspects of the industry and it’s afforded me enough financial security that I can go and do a few things that I really want to do. We collect art. I can spend a whole day in an art gallery. And time goes by really quickly when you do that. So, I’m just enjoying getting out and doing some other things.

I do miss the crew. I miss that static energy you have from producing a show like Stargate. The spontaneous decisions that you have to make. Hopefully most of them are the right ones. I don’t miss the grind every day. Because it does get you down after a while. You go home every night and it takes you a couple of hours. You don’t just go home and go to bed. It takes you a couple of hours. Not every day, but some days. Especially when we were doing two shows at once. It was a bit of a deal.

GW: Forty episodes a year.

NJS: Forty episodes a year and it was kind of stressful.

GateWorld: Could it have affected the quality of either show at all? Maybe?

N. John Smith: Oh, totally. It may have affected it a bit, but the shows were getting good ratings then. Both of them were. So, how it affected it I don’t know. And it was tough on the writers. And unbelievable because again they had to tailor the scripts around. We’ve got a set coming up with a village so we need a renovation on the village [set]. But, you know, I’ve got an episode of Atlantis coming up that is all in the effects stage. And they are both the same places. So you can’t build them there, and you can’t shoot at the same time.

We were always figuring out different ways to do things. The collaboration between writing and production and the physical aspect of the construction crew and the painting crew. Choreographing what they had to do and then having it finished enough in time so the lighting guys could go in with the director of photography and light the set. So when we walked in to shoot for 12 hours it was all ready to go. So it was a deal.

The years went by quick. I can’t honestly say that I ever went home. I’ve never ever had to set an alarm clock to get up in the morning. It was never about that. It was always about “its fun to go to work.” It was a great, great experience and I have to say probably one of the best production experiences anybody could ever have. I don’t think anybody has ever done two at once like that in that type of show. Small projects but not big ones.

GW: As a producer, in your years doing it, what would make you happiest on set? Was it the synergy and things working together the way they should?

NJS: Oh, totally! And seeing when you read a script — you envision as you read it. This is going to look like this, and this is going to look like that. And when you actually see the finished production on the air. Seeing an actor like Rick come in and read the thing four or five times, four or five different ways, give it to the director, and then smoke a different one in there and that’s the one that was used at the end of it. Just watching that kind of talent and understanding, “OK, that’s why Richard Dean Anderson is Richard Dean Anderson. That’s why Amanda Tapping is Amanda Tapping.” They had an instinct. I’m sure it was translated on film or tape. Because, you actually can read that. If actors aren’t getting along. I can watch a movie and know those two actors don’t like each other at all. There is a jealousy thing going on there.

With SG-1, it was there at the very beginning. Everyone kind of felt each other out, but then it all came together. It was wonderful. Seeing that whole thing. Atlantis was the same. Atlantis, the first year or two everybody is kind of figuring out where they are going to be. What the character is going to be. The writers are trying to figure out if this actor can deal with the script the way I’m writing it. Is his acting credentials going to be able to pull this off? So, after a year or so, you get that all happening. You know that you can write a bit of comedy for this guy, you can’t for this guy. And putting that all together, and then seeing the final project. You know, you are reading the script eight months beforehand and then there’s the finished product. It’s like ‘Ah, that’s cool.” So that was always interesting.

GW: Has the role of producer changed at all as technology in the industry has aged and grown? Like responsibilities that are there now that didn’t exist 20 years ago?

NJS: 20 years ago in Vancouver, there was not the availability of stuff that you need to make a television series. Now, there is lots of gear, there’s lots of cameras. There’s competitiveness. There’s different styles of cameras. Yeah, you have to keep updated.

The technology and the film, with lights and cameras, with everything is changing rapidly. So, you have to do a certain amount of research and keep up with that type of stuff. Stargate has always been on the cutting edge. We shot HD [high-definition] before any other shows in the Vancouver area. There was one company back east that was shooting it before us. We have always tried to be on the edge of the new stuff.

GW: When MGM gets back on its feet, maybe we’ll get some [more Stargate on] Blu-ray.

NJS: MGM has been terrific over the years. It’s been a wonderful company to work with. They have been really, really good.

GW: The economy has affected everything in North America last year and TV/movie productions are no different. What’s your outlook on the future? Are we on the upside/upswing of the slump that hit?

NJS: Well the slump — the problem in Canada of course is, we shoot our television shows and they are budgeted in U.S. dollars. And the U.S. Dollar-Canadian Dollar … there was up to a 50% difference. So for every million dollars in the U.S. spent, that was two million dollars Canadian. Now it isn’t like that … it is almost par. So it becomes very difficult. Our production costs go up every year,

but the audience is about the same. So you have to try and figure out more ways — there is more than one way to skin the cat. So you have to figure out more economical ways to shoot the same product or make the product different. That’s what everybody is up against. That is a timeless thing with production. Whether it is television or feature films. It’s been like that since the beginning.

GW: Finally, you’ve spent so many years in this franchise and have had a hand in so many different aspects of it. What message would you give to fans who are thankful for the work that you put into it and your efforts over the years to make the franchise as a whole as great as it is?

NJS: For us as production — if the show is successful — we need people watching it and buying the products like the TV movies and things like that. Then the show will go on. But as soon as the audience drops off, the ratings drops off and it becomes economically not feasible to do the project. There won’t be the project.

It is about as simple as that. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen for a long time. We’ve set some records in longevity already and hope to continue on with them.

Interview by Chad Colvin
Transcription by Avi Zisook
Some people are alive only because it's against the law to kill them