Tuesday, February 24, 2015

James Conway: A Conversation

"Jack in the Box" week continues at the MacGyver Project with a conversation with the episode's director, James Conway. Mr. Conway is an acclaimed director, executive producer, and author, and he has directed the following 7 episodes of MacGyver:
  • Silent World
  • Birth Day
  • For Love or Money
  • Back from the Dead
  • Jack in the Box
  • Hell Week
  • The Odd Triple
Some excellent episodes there, and my favorite of those is Jack in the Box.  Turns out that it is Mr. Conway's favorite episode also!  Mark and I asked him a few questions about Jack in the Box and MacGyver in general, and we're very appreciative of his time.  He even told me that he went back and re-watched Jack in the Box just now - how cool is that!  Note that a few of the questions are the same ones that we asked David Rich

MH: You began working on "MacGyver" halfway through its second season.  What led you to working on the series and did you prefer working in LA or Vancouver?
JC: I knew an executive at Paramount, and he thought I’d be a good match for MacGyver so he suggested me to the producers.  I really enjoyed working in both L.A. and Vancouver. But my kids were small at the time and I didn’t like being away from home for such long periods of time so I’d have to say I preferred L.A.

NS: What makes Jack in the Box your favorite MacGyver that you directed?
JC: I loved a few things about Jack in the Box.  The production value of the small town, prison and the mine really gave the show a big, theatrical feel.  I loved the guest cast; all terrific actors.  And we had a ball shooting it.

NS: One of the things that sets this episode apart from many others are the great villains: the sheriff and the warden.  
JC: Yes, the villains, the sheriff and the warden, were much more real, three dimensional adversaries.  Both felt like real threats.  They even killed one of the prisoners.  That’s one of the reasons I liked the show so much.

NS: The mine site (currently the Britannia Mine Museum) was also used in another episode.  Do you have any thoughts or memories about the site?
JC: I loved shooting in the mine.  A feature film I directed, The Boogens, also took place in a mine and shooting underground brought back a lot of good memories.  Also, there are no mines in L.A., so from a production value point of view, it was very special.

NS: Did you know of any negative feedback from southern audiences?
JC: There was no negative feedback that I know of.  Southern audiences must be used to the stereotypes.  Remember Cool Hand Luke?  I think they realize we were just taking dramatic license.

NS: I thought Richard Dean Anderson was particularly strong in this episode - he really nailed it with lots of great subtle expressions.
JC: Richard was terrific in the episode.  He really enjoyed the locations as well, and liked the Cool Hand Luke vibe of the show.

NS: Any other particular memories about this episode?
JC: I remember it was a very tough episode to shoot.  There was so much to shoot every day and we barely made every day.  But we were all having such a good time — we knew it would be a special episode as we were shooting and that helps energize everyone.

MH: The first episode you directed was "Silent World". Richard Dean Anderson was dating deaf actress Marlee Matlin at some point.  Do you have any idea if that episode was written with Matlin in mind to play the role of Carrie or was it a coincidence?
JC: I don’t know if Marlee was the reason for the show, but it does make sense.

NS: In "Birth Day," was the actress actually pregnant, and if not, what was used to make her pregnancy appear so realistic?
JC: The actress in Birth Day wasn’t pregnant.  There was a pregnancy pad that she wore that was very realistic.

MH: Were any of the seven episodes that you directed more challenging than others in terms of logistics?
JC: Every MacGyver was tough to do.  We only had 7 days to shoot each episode and they were all filled with difficult action scenes and stunts. So it’s hard to remember if one was harder than another.  I do remember the most difficult acton scene I shot was the one at the shore of a lake with hovercrafts that didn’t want to work.  That was in Silent World, I believe.  

MH: You've worked on a large number of series over the years in writing, directing, and producing.  What was your personal favorite series to work on?
JC: I’ve been lucky enough to work on a lot of terrific TV series.  Some of my favorites were Charmed (I was producer/director) where I spent 8 seasons, MacGyver because cast and crew were so much fun and Star Trek, where I directed each of the series including the pilot for Enterprise.  I also loved Smallville.

MH: Your time with "MacGyver" ended in 1988, months before the Lee Horsley series "Paradise" premiered on CBS, which you were supervising producer for.  Was "Paradise" the series you had most direct production involvement with over the years?
JC: I was the Executive Producer or Supervising Producer for many TV shows.  Matt Houston, Hollywood Beat, Paradise, Bodies of Evidence, Burke’s Law, University Hospital and Charmed.  I was also Executive Vice President of Spelling television for 6 years, 1996-2002.

MH: Have you kept in touch with any of the other "MacGyver" actors or crew members you worked with back in the day?
JC: I’m still very close to my AD on MacGyver, Robin Chamberlin and my Camera Operator, David Plenn.  David became a DP and worked with me on many shows after that.

NS: I enjoy thrillers, and it looks like your books fit that bill.  Tell me about your latest book. 
JC: My latest book is In Cold Blonde.  It’s a Hollywood thriller.  You can learn more about it and my other books on my website:  jameslconway.com  

Thanks so much to James for taking time to talk to us and for his significant involvement in MacGyver.  All this behind-the-scenes knowledge is like candy for dedicated MacGyver fans, and we wouldn't know it without people like James taking time to share their memories.  Coming up next, back to the countdown with #30.  Maybe it might be Jack in the Box? 


  1. Another excellent interview and thanks much to Mr. Conway for his fantastic responses. For whatever reason I had always assumed "Paradise" was the show he had the more direct episode-to-episode involvement with so I was surprised to see the extent of his involvement as an executive or supervising producer of so many shows. Agreed that it was very cool he rewatched "Jack in the Box" to give a more detailed review of it.

    I was always impressed with what the crew of "MacGyver" was able to do in cranking out an episode in about seven days of filming. The material that "MacGyver" churned out in seven days would probably take a month on a feature film. I found it interesting that Conway thought each of the seven episodes of "MacGyver" was a challenge because of those time constraints. Seems like just about everybody had positive experiences working on the show, which speaks volumes about how such a labor intensive series survived seven seasons.

    Definitely a treat to be able to ask and receive responses from some of my boyhood heroes who worked on this show. As someone who studied the TV business and desperately wanted to work in it when I was young, the inside information is really nice to have.

    1. It's insane to think that these episodes got done in 7 days. And then they just went right on to the next one. Does your fine-tuned memory carry over to dialogue, like would you have been good at memorizing lines? I think I was pretty good at it as a kid (was in a couple of school plays), but my short-term memory capabilities have decreased with age, and now I think it would be very challenging for me to memorize that many lines in such a short amount of time - I would need some offscreen cue cards!

      Glad you're having fun with these. I can't say I'd heard of most of these behind the sceners as a kid, but that's one fun thing about this project is to come at it from the adult perspective and learn more about the back story.

    2. Memorizing lines isn't necessarily a strong suit of mine. I remember giving speeches in high school English class and preparing a script for it, and then standing up there slack-jawed searching my brain for the words I wrote down that I couldn't remember. For that reason, line memorization wouldn't have been my forte either. I'm better off-the-cuff, like when I start debating somebody on a given topic without making prepared notes and thus not being in a position to recall the "perfect lines" prepared in advance word for word. For what it's worth I think most actors on TV roles probably operate with cue cards, or at the very least only have to have a certain number of lines memorized per take and then have time to memorize the lines for the next scene in between takes. Being a stage actor would be far and away that hardest trade because of that.

      I started paying attention to writers, directors, and producers at around at age 12 and by my teenage years they were the people I most admired on given series, particularly "MacGyver".

    3. Yeah I'm the same way when it comes to speeches - better memorizing a few key points and then going off the cuff (more relaxing that way).

      The West Wing actors were particular impressive because many of their scenes would be briskly walking through the White House halls while talking 100 mph often about erudite subject matter with boatloads of extras zooming by, and these scenes would last for a good 2-3 minutes all in the same shot, so one mistake and the scene would be blown. I read once how RDA met John Spencer ("Leo") and said he loved the West Wing but thought it'd be too challenging for him.

  2. I'm a bit out of the loop as have been really busy recently. Another interesting Q and A session and yet again we get the sense of what a good team the MacGyver crowd was to work with. 7 days for each episode is amazing and when you take that into account, it makes me feel much more forgiving about some of the less than perfect plot/continuity/acting issues which we spot from time to time! If you're not a scientist, some of those lines must have been really hard to get right.We had West Wing in the UK and I remember those shots of the key characters breezing through doors and down corridors with extras almost getting knocked out of the way. Great stuff - keep up the fascinating interviews. Will try to catch up a bit with some of the episode comments over the next few days.

    1. Thanks Al, glad you're enjoying them. I'm with you on cutting them some slack for the less than perfect plot issues. Even without the tight timeline, it's very hard in adventure stories to tie things together perfectly (as I know from writing a book), and so even though sometimes I poke fun, it's always in the context of love and respect!

    2. What I always found to be the biggest struggle with adventure stories is coming up with an original action-packed scenario that wasn't just a carbon copy of something I saw somewhere else. Doing this on a TV show would be even harder because of budget limitations that would leave a number of your best action ideas off the table due to expense or logistics. That's why I'm much more likely to give action-adventure shows acclaim for "greatness" than the average drama, no matter how much better written, because the production is so much more challenging. "MacGyver" should have swept the Emmys back in the day over shows like "L.A. Law" which were winning all the awards back in the late 80s. Nothing against "L.A. Law", but what "MacGyver" was doing on a weekly TV show schedule and budget was just astounding.

  3. Regarding the Cool Hand Luke Connection: did anyone notice the white hat the warden wore in Jack in a Box was identical to the one the warden (the late great Strother Martin) wore in Cool Hand Luke? Coincidence?