Interview with Dark Matter creator Joseph Mallozzi

Just as Dark Matter Season 2 has been officially confirmed David Paul Hellings has had the pleasure to talk to Dark Matter creator and writer Joseph Mallozzi for SFFWorld:

DPH: Hi Joseph, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us at SFFWorld.

JM: My pleasure.  Thanks for taking the time to chat.

DPH: You’ve written too many programmes to mention here, including six years as writer and exec on the hugely successful Stargate franchise Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis, and SGU Stargate Universe. How did you first get into writing and what led you to that career choice?

JM: I was an avid reader growing up, devouring The Complete Works of William Shakespeare in fourth grade between the SF classics my mom used to buy me (Asimov, Clarke).  At some point, I decided I was going to be a writer and started writing short stories and novels – albeit they were the unrefined works of a 8 – 12 year old.

My first step into the world of professional writing was as a scriptwriter for animation.  I grew my career as a writer, eventually a story editor and develop writer for children’s productions, then eventually crossed over into live action television with my then writing/producing partner, Paul Mullie.

DPH: Looking back on your early career, were there any particular favourites in terms of shows you worked on or writing experiences?

JM: Early on in our career, my writing partner and I worked on a show called Student Bodies, a teen sitcom.  We shot in an abandoned high school, worked out of a refurnished classroom complete with an air hockey table we salvaged from one of the episodes.  It was a blast.

In similar fashion, working on Stargate was an incredible experience.  Over our twelve years with the franchise, Paul and I learned a great deal about production, honed our craft, and had the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented, kind, and generous people.

DPH: What led you to write and then exec on the Stargate franchise? What did you learn during that process?

JM: The producers of Stargate invited us to pitch for the show after reading one of our  spec scripts.  We did and they ended up buying a story with the understanding that, if the script worked out, we’d be invited to join the writing staff for SG-1’s fourth season.  It did – and we did.

Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper, who were show running SG-1 at the time (and would later go on to create and show run both Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe) were incredibly open to rewarding from within the production, allowing people to learn and progress.  Paul and I learned everything from prep through post-production from them.

DPH: What sort of time frame did you work on in terms of turning in scripts?

JM: The time frame on Stargate was entirely deadline dependent but one thing I learned from Brad and Robert was the importance of preparation, not only in terms of efficiency but with regard to one’s personal sanity as well.  It’s a philosophy we brought to Dark Matter.  In season one, we had all of our stories broken and 12 of 13 scripts written before we even went to camera.  This season, we’re aiming for half that number.

DPH: Were there any particular favourite episodes that you wrote? If so, why?

JM: I always enjoyed those episodes that had a nice mix of action, character moments and, most importantly, humor.  SG-1’s Ripple Effect was one.  The Ties That Bind, another SG-1 episode was another.

DPH: You took on an exec role also with the Stargate franchise. How did that come about and what did you discover about that kind of a role?

JM: As I said, Paul and I worked our way up, taking on increasing responsibilities.  And it was the same with other writer-producers.  By the end, we were all spinning stories together, then running our own episodes.

DPH: Moving onto the present and the excellent “Dark Matter”. It began as a comic. Can you tell us about how the idea originated and the process that it led it into print?

JM: I’d been developing the series over many, many years while I was on Stargate, assuming I would roll right into Dark Matter once Stargate aired.  The only problem was Stargate seemed in no hurry to end – and so, over those years, I spent a lot of time fleshing out the characters, the backstory and world of Dark Matter.

When Stargate finally did come to an end, I elected to go an alternate route rather than the standard “pitch meeting” avenue.  Through my years spent working development, I came to know the value of “established properties” and decided to launch DM as a comic book first.  The first four issues (covering the show’s first two episodes) were published by Dark Horse Comics, then collected into a trade paperback that became a terrific, visual selling tool for the series.

DPH: Was the idea of giving the characters numbers rather than names there from the beginning?

JM: One of the show’s central themes is identity.  What makes us who and what we are?  Our pasts?  Our experiences?  Genetic predispositions?  Does changing any of those change us?  Given the fact that our characters didn’t know who they were, the numerical designations were sparsely appropriate.  And then, when they turned their backs on their pasts, I felt they became even more fitting.

DPH: How does the numbering of characters change the way you write them, if at all?

JM: It doesn’t influence the writing at all.  In fact, Anthony Lemke once said in an interview he found it strange at first but, after a couple of episodes, the designations became just names to him.

DPH: The comic came out through Dark Horse. Was that a natural fit considering the subject matter?

JM: I think so.  I grew up reading comic books and have been  longtime fan of the type of darker, independent titles Dark Horse produces.  I felt it was a perfect fit.

DPH: What was the response to the comic?

JM: The comic was critically well-received but, at the end of the day, couldn’t compete with the capes.

DPH: I read that the classic British TV series “Blake’s Seven” was an influence? If so, what was it about that show that you liked? Were there any other influences on “Dark Matter”?

JM: Oh, the show had plenty of influences – moves like The Seven Samurai, shows like The Shield and The Sopranos, anime like Cowboy Bebop, comic books like The Thunderbolts.  Ultimately, they all had like elements at their core: anti-heroes (or outright villains) and this central theme of redemption.

DPH: What was the process that led from the “Dark Matter” comic to TV series? How long did that take and what were the challenges along the way?

JM: The challenges were too great to mention at it was through the relentless hard work of Prodigy Pictures President, and Dark Matter Executive Proucer, Jay Firestone that the pieces of the financial puzzle were finally put together and the show was green lit.

DPH: How long did the scriptwriting process take and did anything change from how you initially saw the story going?

JM: Adjustments were made throughout the show’s first season but, for the most part and in terms of major arcs, we told the stories we wanted to tell – the stories I’d envisioned years ago while I was developing the series.  Once we got the green light, we assembled a very lean writer’s room (Paul, myself, and Martin Gero – who is running his own show, Blindspot, set to premiere September 21st on NBC) and broke the entire first season over three weeks.  We wrote, furiously, for five months and by the time we started official prep, we had most of our scripts done.

DPH: Can you tell us about the casting process? Were any of the cast in your mind from the beginning?

JM: I envisioned the characters but not the actors.   There were some people I had worked with in the past who I wanted to see audition.  Jodelle Ferland (FIVE) was someone I worked with over then years ago on Stargate: Atlantis when she was only 12.  Roger Cross was someone I’ve always wanted to with.  Some roles were fairly quick to cast (Anthony Lemke as THREE) while others took a lot longer (we saw over 250 candidates for the role of TWO that eventually went to the marvelous Melissa O’Neil).

DPH: How long did production take? Did it go smoothly or were there any challenges that you didn’t foresee?

JM: The first season of Dark Matter reminded me a lot of my years on Stargate – it was a well-oiled machine.  We went in incredibly well-prepared (12 of 13 scripts), the crew was incredibly talented, and the cast was great.  We ran an efficient production that ensured the money ended up onscreen (kudos to our VFX team lead by supervisor Lawren Bancroft-Wilson) rather than frittered away on reshoots and damage control situations.

DPH: One of the things I liked about Season One was that by the end there are still so many unanswered questions about the characters as to who they truly are. How challenging is it not to give too much away to the audience?

JM: I wanted to approach our first season like the first installment in a book series.  You won’t get all the answers, but the season has a definitive beginning, middle, and end.

DPH: The big question is Season 2. When will you know whether “Dark Matter” will be renewed and what can we expect in terms of characters and possible storylines for a second season?

JM: The show has been picked up for a second season.  I’m presently writing episodes 2.02.  In terms of what we can expect: more world building, new and returning villains, further exploration of our characters’ backstories, a more aggressive crew – and of course action, adventure, humor…and plenty of surprises.

DPH: The future for “Dark Matter”, based on the numbers, seems positive. But, we’ve seen a number of quality shows abruptly cancelled by the networks over the years. “Firefly” back in the day, and most recently “Hannibal”. The shows suddenly end and often without a resolution for fans who’ve followed the shows for years. How problematic is this becoming and is there a better way that networks could wrap shows up?

JM: The show was developed as a serialized series so, short of the network saying “Hey, we’ll pick you up but you have to wrap things up!”, there’s not much you can do to prepare.  As I said, even though all the questions won’t necessarily be answered, each season will have a beginning, middle, and end – and even though it may not be the ending everyone will like, there are enough subtle clues scattered to offer a certain closure.

DPH: I know of a number of very talented screenwriters who have tired of the limited opportunities in modern Hollywood and would love to get into TV scriptwriting as they see the quality of product, but they’re not sure how the process works in terms of opportunities. Any thoughts or advice?

JM: If you’re just starting out and have little or no experience, I’d suggest starting in animation.  They’re more receptive to new writers and will allow new talent to hone their craft – while getting paid.  As for established writers – keep plugging away.  I know it sounds like a cliche, but the difference between success and failure can sometimes be sleight: a meeting, an idea, a connection.

DPH: Are there any other TV shows (apart from “Dark Matter”!) that particularly interest you at the moment? What is it about them that you like?

JM: I’ve always been a fan of serialized dramas, so I enjoy shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Downton Abbey.  How’s that for a grouping?

DPH: One final question: I’ve heard a number of film school students tell me that they don’t like science fiction, but struggle to come up with an answer as to why not when questioned. Do you think that there is a negative response in some quarters to the genre? How do we overcome that kind of challenge?

JM: I don’t understand it myself but, yes, I’ve come up against a lot of that over the course of my career.  “Stargate?  Did that air in the U.S.?”  Yes.  Yes, it did.  I think it comes from a lack of imagination, an inability or plain unwillingness to consider the most mentally challenging of theoretical possibilities.  Faster than light travel and aliens are considered the stuff of immature fantasies whereas shows that focus on the excesses of self-absorbed celebrities are considered “reality”.

What can we do to change this perception?  Great question.  I think we do it by continuing to tell stories that challenge the audience with big ideas and yet, at the same time, offer them elements they can connect with on a more personal level.  Dark Matter, for instance, is a scifi series set in a future world of space ships, subspace communications, and cloning – but at the heart of the show are our characters who, at the end of the day, are people our viewers can relate to.

DPH: Joseph, great to chat and thanks for your time. Best wishes for the renewal of “Dark Matter” and to an excellent Season Two.

JM:  Thanks!  Let’s do this again sooner than later!

* * * * * * *

Interview by David Paul Hellings @HellingsOnFilm – © 2015

This interview originally appeared on SFFWorld:

Dark Matter has just been renewed for Season Two


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