In the second of our interviews with Stargate VFX vet Mark Savela we discuss Echoes, an exciting new scifi pilot presentation which, if given the green light, may just become the best new thing on TV.
Co written by Stargate‘s VFX whiz Mark Savela, shot by Universe, Smallville and Battlestar Galactica crew and starring starring Stargate vets, Echoes ambitiously sets out to be ‘better than anything on TV right now. ‘
Mark Savela shares with us the roller coaster ride involved in writing, prepping and shootingEchoes. He tells us what makes it uniquely different from other alien invasion TV shows and prepares us to fall in love with its old-school, kick ass, female lead, Sonya.
ScreenSpy: We have a bunch of questions to ask you.
Mark Savela: OK. Cool!
SS: Tell us about Echoes and what makes it different from other alien invasion TV shows out there at the moment?
MS: Well, one of the biggest things we set out to do was to make it different. In typical alien invasion shows – or at least the ones that I’ve seen – it’s always us versus them. It’s always the humans versus the aliens, per se. We wanted to create a really unique scenario where we start (in the pilot) two years into a war but the war is between two alien races that are fighting their war on Earth. The humans don’t really have a lot to do with it. We’re just trying to survive as this war ravages our Earth.
It’s up to our cast of characters to find out how the war started and try to put a stop to it, as opposed to fighting these alien races. This makes it unique. Not to put down any shows that are out there at the moment because I think they’re all great in their own respect but our show is more of a road show. We have a mission. We have a journey.
Another unique difference is that we wanted a strong lead female character. To me that really says something. I wanted to make her unique by going back to the time when strong female characters were cool – like a Ripley, like a Sarah Connor, like a Buffy to a lesser degree. Maybe a Buffy without the humor?
I think there’s been a shift with female characters. Look at movies like SuckerPunch or Tomb Raider or Charlie’s Angels. Our female character doesn’t jump fifty feet into the air or do Karate and she doesn’t have superpowers. But she can learn how to use a gun and she can kick ass doing that. We’re going back to that idea of a really strong female character we can look up to and really get behind and root for.
To a certain degree she is a little bit of an underdog as well. So people should be able to really identify with her and cheer for her.
SS: Does she have a name yet?
MS: Her name is Sonya. She’s somebody we love. As soon as we started writing for her we fell in love with her straight away. And I hope that speaks true of an audience because I think you really have to love your lead character. One of the great things about her is she does have her faults like normal people but the potential is always there, and you can always see her potential and she is a good person. So she will never become ‘grey’. You’ll never lose faith in her.
SS: Did you have Jennifer Spence in mind for the part when you wrote her?
MS: When we started writing we actually approached Mike Dopud and Jen Spence and they agreed to it. The Nolan character, who is portrayed by Mike Dopud, we actually wrote for him completely. With Sonya? She was written a lot with Jen in mind. Especially when she agreed to it, we then put a lot of Jen’s personality and Jen’s good nature into it.
There is something about Jen Spence. She is an absolute dream to work with and as a person she is just fantastic and we’re trying to have that come out. I think a lot of people identified with the Lisa Park character from Universe. Seeing her work on Echoes was completely different but without losing the likeability of Jen which is great. Everyone on the pilot presentation was an absolute dream to work with – Victoria Pratt, Lochlyn Munro, Jarod Joseph and Jen and Mike. Amazing.
SS: You began shooting a couple of week ago. Are you completely done shooting the pilot?
MS: It’s not an actual pilot. We’re kind of going about it in a different way. We had two days to shoot and no budget really. A lot of the crews in Vancouver from various shows like Universe and Smallville and Battlestar Galactica all volunteered their time. We picked three or four scenes from our pilot script and shot those. So it’s more a presentation pilot to pitch to networks and production companies.
Everyone did such a fantastic job, and it’s all thanks to the crews that came out and volunteered their time to do it. Will Warring directed it. Michael Blundell was the DP (director of photography). They were both amazing. We shot seven and a half hours of footage in two days. We shot sixteen or seventeen pages which is what an up and running TV show would shoot. It was just a testament to the crew that came out and to the actors. That alone was quite an accomplishment for us.
SS: You were the Visual Effects Supervisor on Stargate for many years. Given the green light, can we expectEchoes to be VFX heavy considering there are two different alien races involved? That’s potentially a lot of aliens. What can you tell us about them at this point?
MS: One of the things about the show is that it is first and foremost a human story. It’s about the characters. It’s about our band and it’s about their journey. The visual effects and the back story of the alien war is a backdrop for our human story. One of the things I believe, and I’ve said this in many interviews, is visual effects should never become the story. Visual effects should be used to enhance a really good story. If the effects become the story then I think you’ve failed. I don’t ever want to do that. I want to make sure we have a great solid story first.
That said, two of our producers are Andrew Carr who owns Atmosphere Visual Effects here in Vancouver and Craig VandenBiggelaar who owns another effects company in Vancouver – Dark Room Digital. Craig did the aliens from ‘Awakening’ and various aliens on Universe so one of the components on the show that we have no doubt about is that the effects are going to be good! So our main goal is to have a great story and a great concept that people can identify with and really get behind. One of the things we did when producing the pilot presentation was to make twelve or thirteen minutes of television that would look as good or better than anything on TV right now.
SS: Do we see the aliens within those 12 minutes?
MS: Yes. We get some really good looks at them and the ships. Those twelve or thirteen minutes are VFX heavy. We’re not going to shy away from it by any means. We definitely want the audience to be captured by the story first and then appreciate the amazing science fiction visual effects-heavy backdrop that it’s set in.
SS: It sounds fantastic.
MS: Cool! I think science fiction has been hit pretty hard and genre TV in general has been hit pretty hard of late. And I think the younger key demo and science fictions fans are definitely more tech savvy and it really hurts live viewing. Genre TV as a whole I think is at a cross-roads of sorts. So I think creating a really good story is always number one for any kind of television show.
SS: What has it been like taking up roles other than VFX? Have you liked it so far? Is it always something you thought of doing?
MS: It is. It’s been great actually, like a dream come true. I loved my job as Visual Effects Supervisor but to actually see something that we’ve created come together and to see everyone get behind it just on the strength of the script is really great.
We had four of our producers backed into a location date which meant we wrote the script for a specific location. Our location manager Heather Vedan got us that location and we basically had two weeks to prep our shoot. So we were four producers who were kind of doing the job of about ten or twelve people on a normal up and running series. It was definitely a challenge but it was super fun and at the end of it when we had wrapped on our final day it was all just a blur. It was crazy roller coaster ride.
I’ve been in the business for sixteen or seventeen years and over the last few years of Stargate I watched these people produce the best run show on television. When you work that closely with Brad (Wright) and Robert (cooper) and Joe (Mallozzi) and Paul (Mullie) and people like Martin Gero and Karl Binder you’re learning from the best and so I felt really well prepared going in. My experience on Stargate definitely helped it because it was such a well run show for so many years
SS: I know it’s early days yet but are you working from a story bible for future seasons or is this something that’s far too early to talk about? Is it something that’s more organic at this point?
MS: No. Right now we are in the middle of creating our bible for the series. And we’re doing our synopsis for the season. So when we pitch the show we can say ‘here is a synopsis for episode … episode … episode… .’ We’re doing rewriting right now on the pilot. We’re putting another pass on it and we’re in the midst of writing our second episode as well. We should have two hours of television and synopsis for the first season as well as our bible by the time the presentation is all set to go.
SS: I’m curious as to where the story idea came from. Was it something you came up with, or Ken (Kabatoff) came up with or did you come up with it together?
MS: It was my original concept for how the series was going to go. We took it from there. I had the concept and I approached Ken to help me write the pilot script. How we went from there is we laid out all the acts for the pilot – all the situations, all the stuff the characters were going to go through and we ended up finishing that in probably a month or so. The original concept was myself and Ken.
SS: We hear a lot about writing teams. Do you think you will use a writing team or will you share writing duties with Ken into the future?
MS: No we would definitely need a writers room. We will be assembling a team of writers because just to try to do it ourselves … If the series went we would be busy producing the show as well. So y’know, we are looking for anybody that wants to pitch! (laughs)
We definitely want to have a writers room. We want to break down all the stories and break down the entire first season. We have a plan for about three seasons worth of stories at the moment which is ambitious but we have a very long journey for our main character to go through. And I love her! And I hope everybody else does.