Over the past two years, I've spent a lot of time waxing poetic — some might argue ad nauseum — about the new Battlestar Galactica, pushing adjectives like "innovative," "groundbreaking" "superlative," etc. I've talked on several occasions about how the series began as one man’s (Ron Moore) vision to reinvent the science fiction genre. I've ranted on about how refreshing it is to sit down and watch a sci-fi show that upends the clichés and deals with big, adult, 21st century issues in a believable way.
And through it all I've often wondered if I was gushing a little too much, overselling a show I'd fallen in love with because, let’s face it, most of us here are self-admitted fans of genre television.
Well, we’re not wondering anymore. With Time Magazine’s recent declaration that Battlestar Galactica is the number one show on television, I feel vindicated in my early prognostications that this show would be a big hit (something I inferred back in '03 in an article I wrote for Script Magazine). It’s an extraordinary achievement for any series to garner such an accolade from the prestigious news magazine, for a science fiction series, it’s unprecedented in the annals of television. Lost may have gotten the Emmy for best series, but Battlestar Galactica is getting the critical acclaim.
Late last year, yours truly was invited to spend some time on the set of Battlestar Galactica during season two’s last leg of production. In the first of our two-part set visit, we take you on a little tour around the soundstages to help acquaint you with "what’s what" behind-the-scenes. We also present our in-depth interview with Commander Adama himself, Edward James Olmos. (In Part II, we’ll feature our exclusive conversation with Mary McDonnell).
We begin our tour at Vancouver Film Studios (VFS), which houses all the standing sets for Battlestar Galactica. Though the miniseries was shot at Lions Gate Studios in North Vancouver, the series itself moved to VFS for scheduling and logistical reasons. (For those unfamiliar with Vancouver’s production scene, the city boasts an ever-expanding roster of production facilities, some little more than converted warehouses.
Possibly the three best known purpose-built studios are VFS; Lions Gate Studios, where The X-Files was also shot; and the Bridge Studios, which has been home to the Stargate franchise for the past decade).
We’re greeted by Galactica’s unit publicist, who explains that despite the enormity of VFS’ facilities, there just never seems to be quite enough studio space for all the sets Galactica needs from month to month. Part of this likely stems from the popularity of VFS’ state-of-the-art facilities, which were constantly booked last year, and which play host to a significant volume of ‘A’-list productions. On the day we were there, for example, X-Men 3 was in the middle of its shoot.
As we walk between the enormous soundstages, we wave to James Callis on the way to our first stop, the CIC set. We first stroll down one of Galactica’s corridors, which are pretty much precisely the same in real life as one observes in the series. Naturally, a small handful of corridors double for the myriad hallways aboard the mile-long battlestar, and most of the sets we will visit on our tour are swing-sets—which for the uninitiated means that they can be easily moved around to enable lighting and camera crews to shoot them from any angle or perspective.
For those who haven’t spent time on a soundstage before, one of the things that’s striking about any set visit is how lighting and camera perspectives make many sets look bigger than they actually are, and this is the case for Galactica’s CIC. While sizeable, to be sure — and consisting of several raised levels as well as an operational "mezzanine" level — the set is frankly smaller than this journalist imagined. What is particularly fascinating, however, is the level of detail contained in the Galactica’s nerve center. As has been widely reported, the ship contains a blend of both modern and old-fashioned (even archaic) technologies, sourced from a variety of places, including marine use, and nowhere is this more evident than in the CIC. The cool part is that every switch, toggle and dial is operational, leading to a greater sense of tactile "feel" for the actors as they deliver their performances.
Virtually every display system must be manned and operated individually — as opposed to being on a loop — in order to match what’s going on with the action in any given scene. What this means is a sizeable crew behind-the-scenes solely dedicated to this task.
We wind our way back through a labyrinth of secondary sets (such as the pilot’s ready room, which doubles for other rooms aboard Galactica as needed), equipment trolleys and lighting stands, careful not to trip on the miles and miles of cable and power cords necessary to mount a production of this scope.
Moving to an adjacent soundstage, we arrive in the Pegasus CIC, by way of an adjoining Pegasus corridor. One is immediately struck by how much smaller the Pegasus corridor (in fact, there’s only one) and CIC are in comparison to the Galactica. Again, we’re informed that part of it has to do with the practical limitations of soundstage room, but it also appears as though the more modern Pegasus makes more efficient use of her interior space, a fact echoed in the production design, which is clearly more contemporary and advanced than Galactica. Minutia hounds will be interested to learn that the etched glass panels in the CIC, first seen behind Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) in "Pegasus", can articulate 90 degrees, again, to aid in filming from different angles.
Next we visit Admiral Cain’s quarters, an interesting blend of both classical motifs (along with Adama she shares a love of historical tomes and artifacts) and state-of-the-art Colonial technology. Whereas Adama’s quarters certainly reflect military trappings, they have a warm, rustic, lived-in look. Cain’s quarters, however, appear to have a heightened specificity of function: the business of war and the precise execution of strategy are front and center, suggested by the prominent "plotting table" that dominates the center of her quarters.
We exit the soundstage and find ourselves back outside on a cold and dreary Vancouver afternoon. But the weather doesn’t dampen my spirits, because the next stop on our tour is the Galactica’s hangar deck, and no amount of sog is going to spoil that.
Along the way, we run into production designer, Richard Hudolin, who agrees to join us on our little venture and give us some inside dope on what we’re about to see. As we enter the soundstage and make our way past the various production accoutrements, we find ourselves on the hangar deck floor and I catch my first glimpse of a Mark II Viper—two of them, in fact, parked side by each.
As we walk over to them, Hudolin describes some of the construction details of the ships, and that despite their light weight (they can be rotated around by a single crew member, if need be), they’re actually quite stro
ng, with cockpits that can easily support the weight of a grown man. "You’ll observe that these Vipers are actually a fair bit more compact than comparable jet fighters we have here on Earth today," he points out. He’s right, and once mentioned, it’s quite obvious.
In addition to the two Mark II Vipers, the production built a single, full scale Mark VII Viper as well, also present in its bay during our visit. As exciting as the Vipers are to see, however, perhaps the most impressive ship to behold in front of you is the Raptor, which has a fully realized interior with a mock 'avionics package' and seems as though it could literally perform the tasks for which it was fictionally designed.
But let’s not forget the hangar bay itself. This is the show’s largest standing set, by far, the pièce de résistance—by my rough calculations (extremely rough) measuring a good 100 to 125 feet long, and almost as wide. Either end of the bay is completely open, allowing for forced perspective to increase its size as needed. "At either end of the bay are tracks," Hudolin informs me, "and those tracks allow us to pull green screen curtains straight across each end of the deck so that CG shots can be rendered later to extend the size of the bay."
As with the CIC, the attention to detail here is phenomenal, and it’s hard to imagine any actor having difficulty calling up his or her character on-cue while performing on sets like these.
The last stop on our tour, before reaching Commander Adama’s quarters, is an adjacent soundstage where the interior of Colonial One is housed. From the outside, it’s nothing more than roughly hewn wood sculpture netted by wires and cables, with simple steps up the side for entry and egress. Richard Hudolin tells us that the inside was heavily influenced by the interiors of large passenger aircraft such as a 747, or the interior design of Air Force One. The cockpit for Colonial One was actually a NASA space shuttle simulator cockpit from California, sometimes hired out to productions and shipped up to Vancouver specifically for the pilot.
Interestingly, Hudolin remarks that he would most probably have come up with an alternate design for the inside of Colonial One had he been fully aware Galactica was going to be more than just a miniseries. "This interior is quite confined for lighting and shooting a weekly series," he stresses, "and had I realized it was going to be used so frequently, I probably would have come up with a more expansive set that doesn’t suffer the limitations of such things as sloped ceilings along the sides."
Nevertheless, we’re fairly certain the complications suffered by the crew during shooting pay dividends to the overall look and feel of Colonial One’s interior on television.
We’re informed that it’s almost time for our trip to Commander Adama’s quarters and our interview with Edward James Olmos, so we thank Richard Hudolin for taking the time out to walk around the sets with us, and head back for the soundstage whence we began our tour.
We arrive at the set as Edward Olmos is being readied for an upcoming scene with Mary McDonnell. He nods to us in anticipation of my interview, and I take a moment to drink in the surroundings.
As mentioned previously, Adama’s quarters are warm and inviting, almost like a library or den. Imagine if you had a favorite uncle who served in WWII, only to later become a professor of military history, and you’ll have some idea of the overall effect it presents. Everywhere you look you will find an eclectic range of antiques and mahogany furniture; familiar in many ways, and yet not strictly identifiable as belonging to one particular Earth culture an audience might immediately recognize.
Persian rugs (or their equivalents) adorn the floors, while a heterogeneous array of military and historical paraphernalia abound. All this plays into the series' "familiar yet different" approach, and at the same time reflects the diverse variety of historical motifs and cultural backgrounds represented in the Twelve Colonies.
As technicians and make-up personnel finish attending to Olmos, he smiles disarmingly and signals me over for our interview, and I reflect upon the career of an actor whose reputation for powerful characterizations on stage and screen is well known, in a career that spans more than four decades and encompasses not only acting, but producing, directing and community activism as well.
Olmos was born in East Los Angeles and grew up wanting to be a professional baseball player. In his teen years, he turned to rock and roll, and for several years played various clubs in and around LA. He eventually branched out into acting, and after appearing in many small productions — including guest-starring roles on series such as Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O and Starsky & Hutch, to name but a few — he finally got his big break in 1979 portraying the narrator 'El Pachuco' in the play "Zoot Suit", which dramatized the World War II-era rioting resulting from tensions between Mexican-Americans and the police in Southern California. In 1982, Olmos reprised the role in Universal’s film version. That same year, he had his first substantial screen role as the construction worker in the film, Wolfen.
From there, Olmos went on to star as Gaff, the unusual police detective in 1982’s Blade Runner, and in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, which Olmos also co-produced. But it was his role as the intense yet taciturn police lieutenant Martin Castillo in the groundbreaking NBC series, Miami Vice that garnered him widespread recognition, and for which he won an Emmy in 1985.
His remarkable performance as math teacher Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver (1987) later earned him an Oscar nomination, vindicating for Olmos his devotion to films of importance. Since then he has maintained that dedication to powerful drama both in front of and behind the camera, through such projects as 1992’s powerful American Me—a grim look at a reformed gangster's attempts to stay away from the violent, criminal ways of his old cohorts; the 1994 miniseries Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills; Gregory Nava's beautiful My Family/Mi Familia (1995); and of course, the PBS series American Family.
Olmos is also known for his strong social conscience. His humanitarian activities include acting as a United States Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, being the national spokesman for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, serving a place on the boards of the Miami and Los Angeles Children's Hospitals, serving as the executive director of the Hazard Education Project, and contributing to the foundation for the Advancement of Silence and Education. For his many good works, Olmos has received Honorary Doctorates from five educational institutions including the University of Colorado, California State University at Fresno, and the American Film Institute in Hollywood.
As I shake Olmos’ hand and sit down with him at his desk, it becomes immediately apparent that there is an active synergy between this actor, this man, and the intrinsic nature of Battlestar Galactica. Olmos' values and strength to some extent set the tone for the fictional world that surrounds him. In a very real sense,
Commander Adama is a role he was born to play…
Robert: I've written a lot about the significance of a science fiction series garnering so many accolades from the mainstream press. In your estimation, what is it about Battlestar Galactica that is emblematic for the 21st century?
Edward James Olmos: Story. This series and its stories reflect everything we’re going through here on Earth right now. It’s amazing to me, quite honestly, the way Ron Moore and his staff have encompassed what’s going on in the outside world, and psychologically the emotional trauma that is happening to all individuals, particularly with respect to fear and how that fear plays into our everyday lives on the planet right now. Our 21st century has much more inherent fear than the 20th century did, in my estimation. And in our show, everything essentially revolves around the fear of dying and human extinction.
Robert: Does this tenor remind you of any other science fiction projects you’ve seen in recent memory?
Edward James Olmos: Ron has really built the kind of dramatic character-driven sci-fi story that I believe we haven’t seen since Blade Runner. He’s picked up where Blade Runner left off in many ways. That door was left open and nobody stepped in, and so he stepped in.
Robert: And of course Blade Runner had replicants…very similar to the humanoid Cylons in several respects.
Edward James Olmos: That’s right. In Galactica we’ve effectively got replicants and the need for the replicant to advance itself. Of course, in Blade Runner they could only live for four years, and here they don’t appear to be bound by that limitation, but the other similarities are certainly there. The Cylons are trying to live with their own sense of balance, and their beliefs are very disturbing because in many ways they almost seem to parallel the way human beings on Earth behave today.
Robert: Do you see the human race ultimately developing artificial intelligence of the sort of complexity we saw in Blade Runner, and now in Battlestar Galactica?
Edward James Olmos: Well, take cloning as an example. Cloning is happening as we speak. There are cloned animals in the United States, and I believe they’re cloning human beings in the United States as well as other parts of the world. Now it’s officially stated that they’re not supposed to, but you can be certain it’s being done for a multitude of reasons. And I suspect one of the most important reasons is so that we can sacrifice the 'clone' for the advancement of all humanity…and/or to advance one particular individual. Some people might say that I’m watching too much science fiction, but my response is that it is naïve — given historical precedent — to think these things will NOT be used for such purposes.
Robert: In Battlestar Galactica, William Adama is understandably suspicious of advanced technology. So can I assume therefore that Edward Olmos views technology’s progression with a certain measure of skepticism?
Edward James Olmos: I tend to measure it with extreme skepticism, because inevitably the intention under which something is conceived comes out in the content. Intent equals content. And the intention of, as an obvious example, nuclear discovery and development was never to advance humanity. They found ways of using it to advance humanity and then they used that as the cornerstone of their rationale, but it was conceived and developed as a means of extermination and as a means of creating a force of power that would enable a certain system or system of beliefs to remain dominate.
Even the Internet falls into this category. It was developed by the government of the United States of America for military purposes before it was enabled to help improve the communications standards of the planet. But the subtext under which it was developed was so that governments could monitor all aspects of communications on the planet. Because once everybody is using the Internet, it becomes an open window to everything that is going on…and cyberspace is completely open. Anyone can jump in and with the right knowledge and technology, tap into everything that is going on. When you talk on a mobile phone, people can listen in if they choose to, as Princess Diana found out, and as many others have discovered the hard way by having such things as their bank accounts destroyed or their identity’s stolen or tampered with. With these new technologies, anyone can find out anything about you.
So, yes, I am skeptical of these technologies, and you can see how this sort of evolution could naturally lead to the sort of predicament our characters find themselves in on Battlestar Galactica.
Robert: And yet wouldn’t you agree that there’s an irony in that? For all through history the technological developments that have come as a direct result of war have trickled down into our society and led to inventions that have bettered our lives.
Edward James Olmos: Oh, sure, that’s true as well. I mean, take microsurgery, for example, where the ability to transmit information from point A to point B at the speed of light enables a surgeon who is working on a patient in Georgia to talk to a surgeon in Tokyo who is an expert in that particular field of medicine, and they can actually see each other and interrelate during the operation and provide assistance…which is certainly phenomenal. So of course there’s always that dichotomy.
Robert: Were you at all interested in science fiction when you were growing up?
Edward James Olmos: Yes. When I was growing up I’d watch Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond. I watched Flash Gordon in the movie houses before it went to TV, and then I watched it on TV as well.
Robert: With Buster Crabbe.
Edward James Olmos: With Buster Crabbe, that’s right. All those shows would just expand your imagination and allow you to explore things you would never explore in other kinds of dramatic series.
But nothing…nothing like Battlestar Galactica. This show is something — I have to tell you — that I am extremely proud of, particularly with respect to what’s being accomplished in the writing. And if they continue to move in the direction in which they’re going, the seasons to come will be even more intense.
Robert: Galactica deals with the fundamental survival of the human race, and yet even in the shadow of Armageddon we still bring all our human foibles with us; our prejudices, dysfunctions, insecurities—what do you think these people have learned from their predicament, thus far?
Edward James Olmos: I honestly think that these people are learning that things are only going to get worse. I think they’re learning that hope is something that is bred inside and must be sustained inside because there’s really nothing on the outside showing them any kind of relief. They must develop their inner strengths, and I think that leads you into what is happening to most of these people now. Those who have not committed suicide, those who have not self-destructed, those who want to see the advancement of the human species; they
are the 'Alpha' and the 'Alpha' represents the survival of the fittest.
There’s a scene in the last episode of season two where I’m with Colonel Tigh and I tell him that his wife, Ellen, is the most gifted person I’ve [Adama] ever seen in my life because she’ll live no matter what she has to do or who she has to go through. It’s incredible. But sometimes that’s in fact what it takes, and people like that, ironically, are often the ones who survive. Interesting, isn’t it?
Robert: Of course, you could also argue that in some ways she’s given up part of her humanity in the service of her own ends.
Edward James Olmos: At times she has, yeah. At times she gives up all of it because she’s willing to deal with the devil to stay alive.
Robert: Like you, William Adama is clearly a thoughtful individual. How much of Edward James Olmos' 'world view' is present in your character?
Edward James Olmos: Well, I try to put in as much as I can, but at the same time knowing full well that I’m not a military officer and that I’m not on the brink of having to understand the destiny and fate of the last human survivors on our planet. Clearly Adama’s torment and frustration is all brought into perspective because he was dropped into an experience he wasn’t really prepared for, no more than any of us — or I — might be prepared. But a lot of me is definitely in Adama, and conversely I think a lot of Adama is starting to become a part of me as well…which is something that inevitably happens with almost every character you jump into. It’s hard to get into specifics, but I live with him every day for ten months out of the year, so you keep him in perspective and you keep developing him. It’s an ongoing process; you never stop.
Robert: How do you see your son’s (Lee Adama) life being different from William Adama’s life when you were the age Lee is now?
Edward James Olmos: I think William Adama was somewhat more innocent and naïve in his younger years than Lee is now. I think the generations following universally experience that. For example, there’s no way you can compare a child raised today with a child raised in the 1950s or 1960s. There’s too much information being given out and too much being received now. I know my kids are instilled with a level of understanding and human emotional awareness and growth that I, at 21 or 25, was not.
I think William as a young man was fighting the Cylon wars and didn’t think of much else other than being focused on winning the war against our own creations that had turned upon us. And we won. And we tasted victory—or so we thought. And now Lee is fighting a battle that appears impossible to win. I liken it in several respects to the difference between WWII and Vietnam.
Robert: One watches the series with the sense that William Adama is either an Atheist, or a man who is very private about his religious beliefs, which is interesting considering he’s part of a society whose cultural iconography seems innately tied to its religion. Has the discovery of the Tomb of Athena changed his mind about the existence of Earth, or his religious beliefs, if any?
Edward James Olmos: To answer the first part of the question, I think the beliefs Adama held were spiritual, and that he believed in the spiritual nature of humankind, but he was never a religious person, per se. He studied religions, but it wasn’t his thing, which is part of why the whole idea of Earth merely seemed like mythology or folklore to him.
As to events altering him as an individual…a lot has changed there. The biggest change Adama went through spiritually and emotionally was his own death. And when you come back from a death experience, where you’re "clinically dead" and your body stops functioning and then all of a sudden you’re brought back, at that moment you’re gone from this understanding and reality…not just lingering there, but gone.
Now nobody really knows what happens during those moments, but that disembodiment, where you’re just looking at everything going on as though watching a movie, is a profoundly altering experience by all accounts. And I think that experience has changed Adama the most.
The second life-altering experience for him was the discovery of the Tomb of Athena. One moment he’s standing in the tomb, the next he’s standing "outside" on open land for reasons not fully understood at this point.
I think those have been the most startling moments for Adama…those and discovering first-hand the new strengths and powers of the Cylons. When Sharon (Boomer) — who I loved like a member of my own family — is lying in the morgue and I ask her, "Why?"…then later I discover the other copy of Sharon on the surface of Kobol while I’m trying to reunite the family and the fleet, and she whispers in my ear, "And you ask me 'why?'"…I realize the full implications of what we’re dealing with and I say to Lee later, "They’re much stronger than we are."
And so all these things cause everything to change for Adama.
Robert: Are there any hot button topics or specific stories that you personally would like to see this series explore?
Edward James Olmos: I’m very curious to see how the writers are going to handle the discovery of Earth. What state will Earth be in? Will we be prehistoric? Will it be 1937? Will it be 2080? I’ve always thought it would be interesting to have us find Earth during the very last episode, and then after this long journey, after everything they’ve been through, the humans of Earth nuke us [laughs]. But in all seriousness, I think this show is so immersed in tackling current events that it’s hard to conceive of an important issue that WON’T be touched upon at some point.
Robert: By the end of "Pegasus", Adama makes a decision with potentially sweeping consequences, but one that logically follows from everything that has happened to him up to that point. Is this a decision he will be able to live with as a military leader?
Edward James Olmos: I think Adama’s decision to attack the Pegasus could be interpreted as strictly military in nature. You don’t leave anybody behind, and protecting your men is a fundamental tenet of any military leader. In fact, you could argue that he has no consideration for anyone OTHER than his military guys aboard the Pegasus—he’s not thinking about the fleet at that moment, he’s not even thinking about the future of either of those two battlestars, because they’re going to blast each other to bits, since he’s not going to give into Cain’s craziness.
Robert: The rape scene toward the end of "Pegasus" has stirred up a lot of controversy in certain quarters. Ironically, there seems to be something of a disconnect here; people seem more willing to accept this in contemporary mainstream drama than they do in television science fiction, almost as if they’ve become conditioned to science fiction presenting a sanitized view of the future. Any thoughts on that?
Edward James Olmos: Well for those who were particularly upset by the scene to which you refer, I pray to god they don’t watch because it’s only going to get worse. They should be warned right now: please turn off your
television sets and do not watch this show because it’s only going to provide more insight into the complexities of what happens to human beings. I would say that the minority of people who were freaked out by the rape scene are likely to be jarred into unconsciousness. So I say to them: do not watch this program, it could be hazardous to your health.
For everyone else, hang on, 'cause it’s gonna be a helluva ride…
Click here for Part II of our exclusive set visit, in which we sit in with Michael Rymer as he directs the previously alluded to scene between Edward Olmos and Mary McDonnell. We also sit down for a one-on-one conversation with Mary McDonnell, who provides us with further insights into Laura Roslin.
I'd like to thank both Carol Marks-George and Lana Kim for their kind assistance and time in facilitating this set visit.