From introducing Romulans to Next Gen, almost directing First Contact, working on the Orville and directing the Enterprise pilot, James L Conway is a part of Trek history and he certainly knows his way around a TV set. I caught up with James and together we looked back at Enterprise and chatted about his career.
It must have been a big honour to direct the first episode in a new Trek show when you took the helm of Enterprise episode Broken Bow. Did you feel any extra pressure or responsibility?
Directing the pilot for a TV series is a huge responsibility. You set the look for the new series, work with the new cast to help them define their characters and have to do this under a microscope because the Executive Producers, Studio and Network have so much riding on the new show. In the case of Enterprise my job was made a bit easier because I knew Rick Berman and Brannon Braga so well, I had a crew I’d work with many times before and a DP (Director of Photography), Marvin Rush, who I loved. We had a great cast, a fantastic script and a wonderful time was had by all. It was a two hour pilot, so our shooting schedule was long, 32 days. As long as some films. And the long schedule and large budget enabled me to craft a pilot that looked and felt like a film.
I recently re-watched Broken Bow and I was struck by how cinematic it felt. It seemed to have a bigger cast than previous Treks. Was that your impression on set? Was there a bigger budget for outside shoots, extras and CGI etc?
Our goal was to make the pilot cinematic. We had a number of large set pieces; the chase and explosion in the opening, the battle during the snow storm on the planet surface to name just two. The cast may have been large because of the scope of the pilot, but the number of regulars was about the same. But the large budget let us not have to skimp on location work, art direction or visual effects. My biggest thrill came once the pilot was finished. We had a cast and crew screening at Paramount large theater. Seeing the pilot on the big screen with surround sound was awesome!
Can you take me through a typical Trek shoot schedule? How long does it take to get one episode in the can?
A typical schedule is 15 days. 7 days of prep and 8 days of shooting. So, including weekends, it takes about 3 weeks. Prep is intense. Everything is pre-planned; new sets, props, visual and special effects, wardrobe, shooting schedule, extras, casting for guest stars,etc. The director also spends time with the writer and Executive Producers discussing the script so that the director can accurately capture the show runner’s vision. Once shooting begins, if the prep has been done properly, everything usually goes very well. There are always a few unpleasant surprises (props that don’t work, stunts that take longer to shoot than planned) but you adjust and keep shooting.
In almost the first scene of Broken Bow there is a massive explosion. It looked great and I found it hard to recall such an overtly action scene in previous Trek entries. It looked like a real explosion!? Are these scenes challenging and do you only get one chance to shoot it because of budgets?
The guest director’s job is to shoot the Show Runner’s vision of the show. The script is all-important. Our job is to visualize the script in keeping with the intent of the show. Many shows are now serial, meaning storylines go on for many episodes. So actions that characters take are often a season long arc. The guest director must read all the scripts before starting work on the show so he knows what’s happening with all the characters and story-lines. As to directing style, some shows have very strict guidelines; Mad Men, for example always was a very simple style with little camera movement and an old fashioned feel. Rick has no rules on Star Trek, encouraging directors to stretch and experiment, as long as the use of the camera didn’t subvert the telling of the story.
As for the explosion, you are right it was very much a real explosion. The blast was so big you could see and feel the pressure wave an instant before the actual explosion. I do believe it was the biggest real explosion of the Trek series. We build that Silo with the express purpose of blowing it up. It was huge, thirty or forty feet if I remember. And the entire cast and crew was gathered to watch it blow!
In a Mirror Darkly (one of my favourite Enterprise episodes) was your second mirror episode following DS9’s A Shattered Mirror. How do you approach Mirror universe episodes, are there any special instructions you give to the actors?
Mirror Universe episodes were fun. The actors loved them because they got to act completely different than in a usual episode. Usually they became evil, conniving, back-stabbing, over-sexed characters — who wouldn’t want to play that? But I always reminded them, don’t overplay it and keep it real.
Why do you think Trek has endured for so long?
Trek survives because it’s about hope. The hope for a better world. The hope for a bright future. Memorable characters and great story lines help, too.
You’ve worked on TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise. Do you fancy an episode of Discovery and what do you think of the new show?
I’d love to direct Discovery. The sets are incredible, the visual effects first class and I adore the camera work. The fact that they have 8 million dollars an episode helps (almost three times a Trek episode in previous series). I like the new series. It is far different than the previous Star Trek shows, but it kept me interested and they were a lot of really unexpected twists and turns.
What’s your favourite Trek series and character?
My favorite Trek character was Q. John De Lancie was brilliant. My favorite series was Deep Space 9.
What was your experience of working on The Orville? There were a fair few Trek alumni involved.. Brannon Braga and Jonathan Frakes…
The Orville was a blast to do. Seth is a great guy and so talented. It was great to work with Brannon again and my old friend Marvin Rush was the DP. Not too many other crew members had been on Trek; but I saw Robbie McNeal (Tom Paris in Voyager) and Jonathan Frakes while I was there — both were also directing an episode.