Posts Tagged ‘Jim Parriott’

Defying Gravity’s Stephen Geaghan – Future By Design

April 3, 2010

Defying Gravity's spaceship Antares in Earth orbit.

If you talk with someone about his or her work, it usually does not take long to figure out whether or not they like whatever it is they do. When it comes to Stephen Geaghan, he loves his job. Having earned two university degrees in theatrical scenic design, Geaghan spent several months last year working as production designer on the Canadian-made Science Fiction TV drama Defying Gravity. A fan of Sci-fi since childhood, he could not resist the chance to design the earthbound elements along with the deep space environment that the crew of the spaceship Antares would be living as well as working in.  

“I had done six years as principal designer on The Outer Limits, and in that time I’d become quite familiar with the idiom,” explains Geaghan, during an interview at the Defying Gravity offices last June. “I went on to do other Science Fiction shows, and then one day I got a phone call to come to Omni Films here in Vancouver to interview for Defying Gravity. I checked out the guys who wanted to see me [series creator/executive producer] Jim Parriott and [executive producer] Michael Edelstein, both of whom have pretty significant Hollywood TV credentials. They had sent me the [pilot] script, which was only a first draft, but it was excellent and a compelling as well as moving statement of intent.  

“So I went in for the interview and brought along my portfolio as well as [demo] reel, quite a bit of which features the Science Fiction work I did not only on The Outer Limits but also other shows like Babylon 5, Sliders and Jeremiah. I ended up getting the job on Defying Gravity, and I think I got it, not because of any particular confidence, but because I was just so darn enthusiastic,” says the production designer smiling. “I was like, ‘I want to do this! I want to work with you guys!’ You can’t ignore that kind of childlike enthusiasm for the genre, and lo and behold they gave me the job.”  

Production artwork depicting the Antares.

Another shot of the Antares.

A week after booking Defying Gravity, Geaghan was in his new office at Bridge Studios in Vancouver and raring to go. “After my initial meetings with Jim and Michael, I sat down to come up with a floor plan of the basic environments that would be necessary and how they would work,” he says. “We knew that the ship itself was going to be linear. The Antares started off as a mile in length, but when I began doing my calculations it was, on a human scale as well as TV scale, too big of an environment to comprehend.  

“So we cut it back to half-a-mile, and still, a human being on the surface looks like an ant compared to the size of the ship. It’s a gigantic ship with a sun shield on the front that measures 600 meters. Each compartment is a cylinder that is 28 feet wide and 50 feet long. We calculated the look of the ship on what we believed NASA could lift in the year 2030, given the Aries heavy lifters that they’re coming up with now. We advanced it though Aries A, B and C, and we figured that the diameter of the cylinder that they could lift would likely increase, say, a couple of feet every generation. So we decided that by 2050 [the decade in which Defying Gravity is set], they could lift a cylinder 48 to 50 feet long and 26 to 28 feet wide, and each component would be two levels. So the entire ship is constructed on that basis.  

“There are rotating arms on the outside of the Antares, and these cylinders, which are where the crew lives, are the gravity environments. In some areas of the ship there’s artificial gravity, and in other places there’s what’s called nano-teched gravity. In those areas, the suits worn by our characters pull to an arbitrary north or south, so it allows them to walk normally even though it’s a non-gravity environment. Organics will float, but anything that is engineered for the ship will have an arbitrary up or down.  

Crew cabin concept art.

Crew cabin concept art #2.

Crew quarters level production art.

Interior of crew quarters set.

Crew quarters/galley set.

“This was actually Jim Parriott’s idea, which I thought was terribly clever. He’s the creator of this entire world; all I do is interpret his visions. As I said, though, we started off with a very powerful, well thought out script that he produced, and that carried  on with the rest of the scripts. Jim’s overview of the show is spectacular. It encompasses a five- to six-year span, and, again, my job is to basically create the environments that elucidate what he has in mind, as well as keep the technology, not so much Science Fiction, but closer to Science Fact. And that’s been tough. We’ve had a lot of interaction with NASA as well as NASA technology and we try not to stray too far from that, even though we’re dealing with the discovery of other life forms in the show, which we have to in this genre.”  

Sitting in one of the chairs on the Antares flight deck, you cannot help but fiddle with the various controls and “play” astronaut. Connected to the flight deck is the ship’s observation deck, a retro-like domed area where the characters can enjoy a little downtime. Both these sets were among the most challenging for the production designer to come up with.  

“They were the last two sets we designed before going into production, and there were a lot of changes that occurred with them,” recalls Geaghan. “Originally, the observation deck was small, and Michael looked at it and said, ‘It has to be bigger.’ So that’s one instance where we departed from NASA technology. By that I mean eight-by-eight foot sheets of glass don’t work in the reality of space, but this was something that we had to do and say we could do in 2052.  

Welcome aboard the Antares' flight deck.

Another view of the flight deck.

A view out into space on the observation deck.

“That was difficult to justify, and also very difficult to engineer within that environment. These are large sheets of heavy, tempered glass that don’t move easily or well. So we had to redesign the set several times, including getting the panels at the proper angle so they reflected the floor and not one another or the crew, since the entire set is virtually 360 degrees of glass. There were sound problems, too, because this set is very ‘live’ inside; you get into the center and it forms a beautiful echo. So when shooting scenes we have to keep the actors out of the center of the set. There was also the fact that we had to incorporate both green screen and black [screens] – green screen when the actor walks in front of elements, and black when we’re showing a star field through the windows.  

“So this was the toughest set to actually get a handle on, and then at the last minute when we were building it in another section of the soundstage, it was determined that it had to connect to the flight deck. In retrospect, it was a terrific idea that, again, Jim Parriott came up with. He’s visualizing down the line how we’re going to use these sets, and we are in service to the script. When Jim looks at something and says, ‘Nah, we won’t be doing that, we’ll be doing this,’ you listen closely because it’s going to happen that way, and he doesn’t change his mind. Jim is extremely clear about what he needs and wants.”  

When the Antares and its crew departs for their six-year exploration of the solar system, their mission is being watched back home by the ISO (International Space Organization) and the men and women in charge of Mission Control. That locale was another one created under Geaghan’s watchful eye. “The Mission Control set had a really interesting development because when I first walked onto the set it was in its final days of being used for Stargate Atlantis and a bit of a dog’s breakfast,” notes the production designer. “I remembered vaguely what it looked like in [the feature film] Blade, but at this point, it didn’t look anything like that.  

The impressive ISO Mission Control set.

The candidates for the Antares' mission meet in Mission Control.

The men and women of Mission Control monitor every step of our heroes' mission.

“I went rummaging around for the original drawings, which were very difficult to locate, in order to find where the steelwork was. When we eventually got control of the stage, my construction coordinator, Henry Griffin-Beale, asked me what I wanted him to do, and I told him to gut the set and strip it all down. So we threw out everything – ceilings, walls, we took the floors right down to the concrete along with every piece of scenery that was attached to the steel – and then I knew what we were dealing with.  

“At that point we built a complete staircase, put in a conference room on the second floor, and added offices as well as a corridor where there were none. I also decided to use glass and open up the set up to make it much more transparent for cameras in order to create depth. We re-clad all the beams and pillars as well to give the set a more contemporary feel so it didn’t look like a turn of the century, or turn of the 20th century, industrial environment. We brought in new lighting and carpeted the floor as well as added acoustic materials in ways that look decorative, but are actually very functional and deaden sound because it’s an extremely ‘live’ environment. So all of this was a huge development and a very expensive set.”  

The production designer chuckles when asked about the bathrooms on the Antares set. “We have two working bathrooms in the crew quarters as well as one functional shower, and all these things are used in the show,” says Geaghan. “We see the characters going in and out of them. In one episode, the toilet gets plugged up and our lead actor, Ron Livingston, who plays Maddox Donner, has to unplug it. It’s a very intrinsic part of the episode, where he pulls out the seat, followed by the next piece, and reveals all these tubes, plugs and pressure chambers.  

“There was a great deal of research done to try to find out how a zero-G toilet works and we duplicated it rather closely, right down to the seat belts and stirrups. We literally detailed things right down to that level. I think we did a calculation of exactly how much toilet paper our characters would actually need to take with them on the ship for a six-year voyage. And it’s a lot of toilet paper,” jokes the production designer. “We even have a whole water recycling area as well that’s shown in one of the episodes.  

The Antares' water filtration system.

Major Tom's bar, the ISO team's favorite "watering hole."

Another shot of Major Tom's.

“We tend to be very thoughtful about how we come up with and design things for this show, and I think each and every person in this art department has a love of outer space. We’re all children of the 60s and 70s – I’m actually a child of the 50s, but we’ll leave that alone,” he says with a laugh. “I remember things like Sputnik and Telstar, so I grew up with space and Science Fiction, and when I got this show I was like, ‘I can do this. I can render this.’  

“The other thing is we’ve all been influenced by the classics. Everyone here has in the back of their minds that marvelous quality of design that was in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even though we don’t have a feature film budget here on Defying Gravity, we can get pretty darn close.”  

For Geaghan, working on Defying Gravity has been like being a kid in a candy store, and he has high praise for the creative people in his department who have helped bring this story to life.  

Paula Morales (Paula Garces) receives medical treatment in the ship's hyperbaric chamber.

The Antares' crew is enlightened as to the mysterious contents of one of the ship's pods.

Maddox Donner (Ron Livingston) tests out one of the EVA (extra-vehicular activity) suits.

“It’s an amazing crew,” he says. “There’s Suki Parker, our art director; John Gallagher, our principal illustrator, who has been with us right from the very beginning; Clyde Klotz, our secondary illustrator, who’s another talented man; Tim Joyce, our draftsman, and Krista Strofe, graphics. There’s also our set decorator Jonathan Lancaster and his crew, who have done a terrific job in maintaining the visual integrity and detail that this show needs and requires.  

“This band of little merry men and women come in here every day and bust their guts to give the program the visual reality that it has, and we all love doing it,” he enthuses.  

Steve Eramo  

All photos courtesy of and copyright of Stephen Geaghan, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!

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Defying Gravity’s Andrew Airlie – In Control

August 9, 2009
Andrew Airlie as Mission Control Flight Director Mike Goss in Defying Gravity. Photo by Kharen Hill and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC

Andrew Airlie as Mission Control Flight Director Mike Goss in Defying Gravity. Photo by Kharen Hill and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC

What if your job required you to go away for a very, very, long time, say six years? And what if that journey would take you far, far, away from your loved ones and all else that is familiar to you, say, eight billion miles? You would want someone who was on the ball and with plenty of experience watching your back, right? On ABC’s new Sci-Fi drama Defying Gravity, that person is Mike Goss. As flight director of the spaceship Antares, his post is Earth’s Mission Control where he oversees a team of eight astronauts on a journey to explore Venus as well as other planets in our solar system. Production-wise it was almost down to the wire when the show’s producers offered actor Andrew Airlie the chance to step into the shoes of the calm, cool, collected and by-the-book Goss.

“I came into the [casting] process a bit late into the game,” notes Airlie. “I don’t think the casting directors had suggested me to [executive producers] Michael Edelstein and Jim Parriott because at the time I was under contract to another series and wasn’t really available to audition. However, it was getting, I believe,down to the wire and they still hadn’t nailed down anyone for Goss. So casting directors Heike [Brandstatter] and Corren [Mayrs] suggested me to the producers and brought me in to audition.

“So it came up quite suddenly, and I didn’t know much about the show other than the ‘DNA’ of it, which was that Michael Edelstein and Jim Parriott were two of the executive producers and I was familiar with their work and reputation. I also knew that Ron Livingston [Chief Engineer Maddux Donner] was attached to the project, and I’m a huge fan of his work. I thought, ‘Well, all that’s a pretty good start.’

“When I went in to audition I hadn’t read the full script, only the two audition scenes, but I thought the writing was terrific and I really liked the character. He’s so different from most of the roles I play. Very often I’m cast as the nice guy, and Mike Goss isn’t especially worried about being a nice guy. He has an enormous mission to run and he’s not interested in making friends or having others think favorably of him. He’s a get-the-job-done-type of guy and that intrigued me. So I went in and had what I thought was a good audition, and Jim and Michael must have felt the same way because they said, ‘OK, get him. ‘ As it turned out, the other series I was working on didn’t get renewed, so I was able to come over to Defying Gravity and I couldn’t have been happier.”

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Airlie was around nine or ten years old when he began thinking about what he would like to do when he grew up. Acting was on the list, only not at the top. “I always had it in my mind that I was going to be a professional soccer player until I turned 30 – which when you’re 10 years old means you’re an old man and pretty much done as a player – and then immediately become an actor,” he recalls. “Both my parents loved the cinema and as a child they took me to films a lot. And as so many children sitting in a dark movie theater and looking up at the screen, it was magical and I wanted to be up there, too.

Mike Goss tries to work out a solution to a problem threatening the Antares mission. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC

Mike Goss tries to work out a solution to a problem threatening the Antares mission. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC

“I kicked around on the edges of professional soccer and player semi-pro for a couple of years, but then I realized that I was a dime-a-dozen kind of central defender player and decided instead to pursue an education. I went on to get my undergraduate degree and a Masters in international relations and was accepted to Columbia University to begin a PhD. I was 26 or 27, and the summer before going to Columbia, I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to give acting a shot, otherwise 20 years or so from now I’m going to regret it.’

“I wrote to Columbia to ask for a year’s deferral, and then naively went out, got some headshots taken and wrote a very scholarly-sounding letter to all the agents in Toronto saying that I wanted to pursue acting. I had three meetings and two of the agencies offered to take me on. I chose one and the next day they sent me to audition for a beer commercial. I got the job as well as the next two I went out for. I thought, ‘This is a lark. It’s like falling off a horse,'” jokes the actor. “Of course, there were lean patches after that, but I got off to a pretty good start. My third job was a campaign for Cathay Pacific Airlines and I went to Hong Kong for a month and it was so much fun. From there I began to make contacts and found out who I should study with. So I took classes and then started to climb the ladder with bit parts, then small principle roles, followed by principle roles and worked my way up that way.”

No stranger to moviegoers and TV watchers, the actor has appeared in such feature films as The Freshman, Fear, Final Destination 2, Fantastic Four and the upcoming Dear Mr. Gacy. On TV, Airlie has appeared on dozens of series including The Commish, The X-Files, The 4400, DaVinci’s Inquest and Mysterious Ways.

The actor makes his Defying Gravity debut in the show’s first season opener. His character of Mike Goss is seen prepping the crew of the Antares for its mission. Audiences also see his involvement in a prior expedition to Mars where he ordered Maddux Donner and Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba) to leave their fellow astronauts behind. This has led to a somewhat strained professional relationship between him and Donner, and in the first episode, both men have a heated verbal exchange, and later on, Goss is on the receiving end of Donner’s fist. All this proved immensely satisfying for Airlie to play.

“That first episode remains one of my favorites,” he says. “My character was involved quite heavily in it, and when we were filming it there was all this new energy. This project was new for everyone, and everyone wants to set the bar really high with their first episode, so I just remember everyone bringing their best work to the table. Not that that hasn’t continued since, but you can really feel it when everyone is on the same page and you’re not in the dog days of filming and the cast and crew are tired. The energy was just extraordinary, and also everyone was trying to find the tone of the show in a collaborative way, so it was fantastic.

Mike Goss at his post in Mission Control. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC

Mike Goss at his post in Mission Control. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC

“I also had the opportunity to do a number of scenes with Ron in the series opener, more so than in later ones because his character is up in space and mine is back on Earth. The only other opportunity is in flashbacks, and Mike Goss tends to be slightly less involved in the flashbacks, so having those early scenes with Ron was a fantastic experience because he’s just gold to work with. The scene where Donner punches Goss was great to shoot, as was the one where my character chews Donner out after he jumps the British reporter. That’s one of my favorite scenes, and I remember thinking on the day we shot it, ‘Wow, I hope we got all that,’ because we did it at the end of the day and it was kind of a crushed and compressed scene. However, when I saw it in the final cut, I loved it. The way [director] David Straiton composed it and the way our camera guys shot it through some of the steel railings and from a lower angle worked so well. Everything that scene needed was there, so hats off to those guys.”

While Mike Goss may not worry if people like him or not, he still has to carry himself in a professional manner while on the Mission Control floor as well as maintain a certain rapport with those around him. “Mike is someone who is married to the space program – it comes before everything else, so friendships aren’t especially important to him or on the forefront of his mind,” explains Airlie. “That said, his relationship with Karen LeBlanc’s character of Eve Shaw has certainly warmed up a little bit. In the beginning, especially in the flashbacks, he is quite resentful of the fact that someone with no scientific or astronaut training or other serious professional credentials is assigned as sort of his equal. On some levels, Eve may have higher security access than Mike’s, or certainly as high as his, and I think it annoys him that he has to work with an individual who he doesn’t respect on a professional level.

“Mike’s other primary relationship is with Maddux Donner, and I’ve really enjoyed exploring that, especially in the flashbacks where we’ve tried to show that Mike isn’t a hard-ass for no reason. He doesn’t personally dislike Donner and, in fact, I’ve tried to make it clear that Mike does acknowledge that Donner is one of the best astronauts he’s ever worked with. It’s one of those things where when someone rubs you the wrong way, quite often it’s because of a characteristic you wish you had, or had more of, you know? With Mike and Donner, it’s the fact that Donner is a maverick, and Mike probably resents as well as envies that.

“So he may not ultimately respect Donner the way that he should, but Mike knows that Donner is as good, if not better, an astronaut than he was, and it’s probably that maverick sense and his ability to follow his gut that bothers Mike. My character won’t make the gut instinct call. He knows what the procedure is and what the book says you should do every step of the way. Mike won’t deviate from the book, and Donner will. So that’s been a real pleasure to play with Ron, and in a couple of scenes I’ve tried to make Goss push Donner to a couple of cliffs to try to get him to step over the line. Hopefully it will come across that my character isn’t doing that just to be a jerk, but rather that he’s testing Donner and trying to make him an even better astronaut.”

It is revealed in the first two episodes of Defying Gravity that there is a mysterious presence – referred to as “Beta” – that is the real guiding force behind the Antares mission. However, only Mike Goss, Eve Shaw, her husband Ted, who is in command of the Antares, and a few select others are aware of this. As the first season unfolds, this unseen force pushes events in a specific direction, and Mike has to roll with the punches.

Mike Goss and Eve Shaw (Karen LeBlanc) watch as events unfold onboard the Antares. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC

Mike Goss and Eve Shaw (Karen LeBlanc) watch as events unfold onboard the Antares. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC

“What I’ve come to realize with Mike as we go along in these first 13 episodes is that he’s coming to grips with the fact that he’s a control freak, but he’s not going to be able to hold onto that control the way he always thought he could,” says Airlie. “He’s not going to be able to manage every moment of this mission the way he wants, but he’s never going to give up on the hope that he can. Early on, I think my character was a little more frustrated in his experiences, especially having to work with Eve and the role she plays in the mission. In some of the latter episodes, though, he’s been slightly more collaborative with her and more accepting of the fact that you simply cannot micromanage a project of this scope and size. So I’m trying to find those moments just to show added shades of this character and make him a little more accepting of that reality.”

Prior to Defying Gravity, Airlie appeared on Reaper. He played John Oliver, who, together with his wife (played by Allison Hossack) sold their son Sam’s (Bret Harrison) soul to the Devil in order to save John, who was gravely ill at the time. “I have a warm place in my heart for Reaper,” says the actor. “I truly loved my time on that show. When I originally asked my agent to pursue the role of John Oliver, the [script] specs on him were rather vague. He was more or less described as a 50-ish Dad who doesn’t quite get it.

“I had my first audition with the producers, who had several callbacks for the role, and they ended up casting me. When we shot the pilot, the very first scene is where Sam wakes up on his 21st birthday and his parents are having a conspiratorial argument of sorts at the bottom of the stairs. When they see Sam, John says to him, ‘Hey, Sam, you look great. I’ll be there in a minute.’ We rehearsed the scene, locked the cameras and the director, Kevin Smith, walked over to me at the last minute and said, ‘Dude, they told you about this guy, right?’ I said, ‘No, not really,’ and Kevin said, ‘I love what you’re doing, I really do, but I just thought I would give you one other thing to think about – Dad is probably not human.’ Then he turned to the crew and said, ‘OK, roll sound! Action!’

“So for me, that remained one of the challenges, certainly in the first season, where from an acting standpoint I was never really told what my character’s background was. I knew he sold his first-born son’s soul to the Devil, but it was never confirmed to me until literally the end of season one that he’d probably been here [on Earth] before. They also didn’t quite go so far as to tell me that Dad was going to be a demon. That was something [series creators/executive producers] Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters intended to delve into in year two, but for whatever reason, we didn’t get to do that. Again, that presented an acting challenge for me, but overall I absolutely loved my time on the show.”

In the first season Reaper finale Cancun, Sam and Mr. Oliver look to be headed for a one-way ticket to you-know-where when they are buried alive by a group of disgruntled demons. “Working on this episode and, in particular, the burial scene was much more enjoyable than I thought at first,” says Airlie. “I was slightly anxious going into that scene and wondered how we were going to do it right and not make it look chintzy, but the director and everyone involved walked me through it. The day before, they showed me the mixture of dirt and very soft peat moss they’d be using. And you can only rehearse something like that so much because it’s a big deal to dump that much dirt, then gather it back up and dump it again. We’d have to get by with maybe two takes at the most.

Mike Goss and Eve Shaw agree to disagree. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC

Mike Goss and Eve Shaw agree to disagree. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC

“So they ran two cameras and Bret and I had a blast having dirt dumped on us. It was one of those scenes where half your job is done for you because you don’t have to act much. Dad had taken a large spade to the back of the head, so I’m supposed to be unconscious, and for Bret, his character was fighting to keep him and his Dad from being buried alive. I was pleased in the end when I saw the scene. It did look quite believable.”

Lucky for Sam, he is saved by two of his ex-neighbors-turned-demons, while Mrs. Oliver comes to her husband’s rescue and digs him up. Because Mr. Oliver is a demon he cannot die, and in Reaper‘s second season he reappears as a zombie. That allowed Airlie to reinvent his character, with a little help. “The make-up process was slightly daunting at first,” he says. “Initially, it took three-and-a-half hours, and in subsequent episodes, they refined the process and got it down to two-and-a-half hours and then an hour and a bit to remove it all.

“The other sort of big physical challenge with playing zombie Dad, certainly in the first couple of season two episodes, were the contacts that I had to wear. Once I popped them in, I couldn’t see where I was going. I could see lights, but not people or objects. So in those first two episodes I had to somewhat limit my movements, but after that, they left the pupil in my left eye clear so I could see where I was going.

“Acting-wise, the trickiest thing in season two was trying to find the right tone for Dad, and we kept receiving mixed notes about what that should be. You want your character to hang together and be coherent, and there was a lot of comedic opportunity with that particular storyline, but, unfortunately, I don’t think we got to explore all of it. Just the same, though, I had a ball playing a zombie. Reaper was a pleasure to be a part of and I was sad when I found out that it wouldn’t be continuing.”

In the summer network TV doldrums of inane reality series and reruns, Defying Gravity is a welcome oasis and one that Airlie hopes proves popular with viewers. “Jim Parriott has a fantastic, long-term story arc planned that you wouldn’t believe,” he enthuses. “I don’t want to give anything away, but what I was really impressed with and jazzed about was the pace at which things move along, especially after episode five. There’s always the danger that you can draw things out, like a mystery or a secret, and play on the patience of audiences, but Jim doesn’t do that. Wait until you see the second half of these first 13 episodes. Things just gallop along, and it doesn’t feel forced or too fast, either. It’s a fantastic story and I hope we get the chance to tell more of it.”

Steve Eramo

Defying Gravity is produced by Fox Television Studios and OmniFilmProductions, in association with the BBC, Canada’s CTV and Germany’s ProSieben. As noted above, all photos by Kharen Hill or Sergei Bachlakov and copyright of Fox Studios/ABC , so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!