Monday, March 30, 2015

John Sheppard: A Conversation

John Sheppard worked on "MacGyver" as a writer, executive editor, and co-producer beginning in Season 4 and ending with the series finale (which he wrote and produced).  His humility was evident as he made it clear to me that "MacGyver" was very much a team effort and that he didn't want to take sole credit for anything.  We're very grateful to Mr. Sheppard for his immense contribution to the series and for taking time to answer several questions.

And in case you're just joining us, Mark H. is a MacGyver superfan and loyal reader of this blog. He had told me that Mr. Sheppard was his favorite writer from the series, and "not by a small amount" - in fact, Mark recently rated Cleo Rocks (written by Sheppard and Rick Drew) as his favorite MacGyver episode of all time.  So I let him drive the bus on this one (though I did sneak one question in).
MH: What was the process that led to you becoming a writer for the series?
JS: I was a Canadian writer living in L.A. when MacGyver was about to start shooting its fourth season, the second one shot in Vancouver, B.C. I had written some indie films and done some work for Jackie Chan at the time, and I think the series needed more Canadian writers on staff -- so the decision was as much budget and politics as creative. Having no series experience, I was asked to rewrite a script called "Secret of Parker House." I ended up rewriting every word and turned it into a sort of ghost story. The result was an on-screen credit and a job on staff.

MH: The episode "Brainwashed", featuring Jack Dalton being brainwashed to assassinate an African President, was one of my favorite episodes of "MacGyver". It seemed like a very original story idea. Did you draw on any prior influences when writing that script?
JS: Glad you liked the episode. I'm surprised that few people have recognized our original influence for that episode was "The Manchurian Candidate" (the original, not the crap remake). At the same time we had an opportunity to shoot on a carnival Midway, so I wrote in a scary fun house. Of course, the real thing was un-shootable, so our terrific production team built a gigantic fun house set in the studio, using another old movie for inspiration ("The Lady From Shanghai"). What with the dream sequences and so on, it was considered one of the stranger episodes.
MH: I always felt you had a finger on the pulse of what this show's fan base wanted in the episodes you wrote.
JS: Frankly, the one person who really did have a finger on the pulse of the show was Stephen Downing Jr., the executive producer and show runner. His influence on the series was total -- he agonized over every word of the scripts, oversaw the shooting, editing, even sometimes conducted the orchestra for the score -- he was the heart and soul of the series, hands down. MacGyver's moral compass -- his distaste for guns, his humanist and even liberal stances on issues such as race and environment, not to mention the pace and drama of the series, was guided by Downing; an interesting man, he was a former deputy police chief of L.A. who had written for Jack Webb and Gene Roddenberry while a cop, then retired and got into TV. I worked on two other series with him. Great guy.
MH: I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on the Murdoc character. And did you request to write the Murdoc episodes or were they assigned to you?
JS: The Murdoc character was actually created the season before I joined the series, and he was supposed to have been killed, but the character was popular and frankly everyone wanted a chance to work with Michael Des Barres again, so Rick Drew and I were tasked with resurrecting him from the dead. The producers also wanted to bring back the Penny Parker character, and I think "Phantom of the Opera" was huge at the time, so we ended up creating "Cleo Rocks" as a sort of send-up of Des Barres' musical career. We also tried to kill him off again, but the character became even more popular, and I sort of became the go-to writer for Murdoc episodes. Which was fine with me, because Michael really was a joy to work with at all times. I always wanted to have his Murdoc character team-up with Dr. Zito, just to watch him and Morgan Sheppard on the screen together. It would have been priceless. Editor's note: There's still time! What if they were to bring RDA, MDB, and W. Morgan back for one final epic tv movie? I'm feeling faint just thinking about it. Let's make this happen!
NS: Regarding the series finale, was it your idea for MacGyver to have a son? What else were you thinking about or aiming for when writing the finale?
JS: MacGyver's son was actually a production decision, hoping to spin-off a new series with a younger MacGyver. It was written as a kind of sneaky pilot, if you will. Eventually for various reasosns the network and studio decided not to go with the new series. After seven years it was time.
MH: Do you have a favorite "MacGyver" episode, either written by yourself or someone else?
JS: It's hard to pick a favorite, because so much of MacGyver was a bunch of pacing around offices and walking around the set trying to come up with gimmicks and tricks for MacGyver to get out of deadly danger. Everybody from stunt guys to the camera guys had ideas -- they all had a little MacGyver in them. So, I tend to remember favorite stunts and "MacGyverisms" -- the fantastic sledding finale in "Gold Rush", or MacGyver disassembling a shotgun to foil Murdoc's booby-trap in "Dead Season", so on. My favorite episode is probably "Coma", which was originally a story idea proposed by an executive's son that I found interesting, except for the story, characters and action. I was looking for a way to bring back the great John Anderson as Uncle Harry, so I proposed we kill him. At the same time I was researching the "Eye of Osiris" episode, so I guess some of the Egyptian research leaked in with the Spirit Boat and Ka stuff. The end result was a very emotionally powerful episode that even had the cast and crew in tears. I also have a fond place in my heart for the aforementioned "Eye Of Osiris", though it was originally a two-episode script that got cut down to a single episode, but it was still fun. Editor's note: "Dead Season" refers to "Strictly Business" and "Coma" refers to "Passages." I'm guessing those were the original or working titles which is interesting to learn. And a great line here: "a story idea proposed by an executive's son that I found interesting, except for the story, characters and action."
MH: Any relation to either W. Morgan Sheppard or Kymberly Sheppard, both of whom guest-starred in multiple "MacGyver" episodes?
JS: No relation to either. Kymberly apparently has a brother named John in music who I believe people have mistaken for me -- it took years to get his credits off mine on IMDB. I think Kymberly played the bartender in "Collision Course".
MH: Were you ready to move on when "MacGyver" ended or would you have preferred to see it go on longer?
JS: I think we were all ready to move on. The final season was shot in L.A. which could be restrictive compared to the production freedom and "big look" the show achieved shooting in Vancouver. The network did plan to shoot the MacGyver TV movies in Europe, and I had already been working in France on "Counterstrike", so when I was approached to write one of the movies I jumped at the chance.
MH: Were you in England overseeing the production of "MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis" TV movie you wrote?
JS: I was on the set for the majority of the shoot as an "associate producer" or some kind of lame-ass title, but it allowed me a chance to be on set and help work out the action and gags, and especially the chance to work with the great Brian Blessed, a brilliant actor who could fill a room without even being there. The other movie I had little to do with other to make some minor suggestions, which was frankly all there was time for given the production deadlines. It was kind of oddly familiar when years later, Indiana Jones in the "Crystal Skull" movie announces that the fabled ancient treasure "is knowledge"!
MH: I enjoyed the episodes you wrote for "FX: The Series" after "MacGyver". Were there any other series or films you enjoyed working on as much or more than "MacGyver"?
JS: The "F/X" series was fun, but my favorite was the "Robocop" series we shot a year earlier. We writers wanted to make a hard-edged dark humored satire with big action, but foreign investors wanted to sell toys and so it became diluted trying to be a kid-friendly family show, which it was never really meant to be. Still, production values were amazing and some of the satiric jabs at the future corporate culture were fun and as it turns out, sadly accurate.
In general, my favorite projects are the ones I happen to be working on at the time. My current one is a teenage revenge fantasy that is sort of like "Apocalypto" with girls in high school uniforms. Editor's note: "a teenage revenge fantasy that is sort of like Apocalypto with girls in high school uniforms" - that's what I call a hook!
MH: Do you keep in touch with any members of the cast and crew of "MacGyver" all these years later?
JS: We don't keep in contact much, which in this business unfortunately tends to be something of an occupational hazard. Rick Drew and Stephen Downing show up on my Facebook wall -- Rick is teaching at Vancouver Film School, and the last I saw of Steve he was campaigning to decriminalize marijuana. The man never ceases to surprise me.
Thanks to Mark for contributing the questions and to Mr. Sheppard for his time in answering them. A torrent of great behind-the-scenes information, and it is much appreciated. And looking forward to seeing what comes out of his current project!  Coming up later this week, a talk with Season 3 writer and producer Calvin Clements Jr.


  1. Very impressed with his thorough responses which were definitely worth the wait. I'd looked at Sheppard's IMDB page before but guess I missed that he had no series experience at all before "MacGyver". I'd be curious to see the original draft of "Secret of Parker House" given that it only morphed into a ghost story on the rewrite.

    I'd never seen the original "Manchurian Candidate" so I guess that's why I missed that that was an inspiration for "Brainwashed". It makes sense though. I guess the fact that I was so young at the time, along with so many other "MacGyver" fans, is why I and others missed a lot of the pop culture influences from years past.

    Sounds like Des Barres was as much fun on the set as his character was for fans. I always contemplated the idea of Murdoc and Zito working together back in the day too so it's amusing that Sheppard entertained the same idea. Frankly, in the scene in the asylum in "Lesson in Evil" when Zito is shouting "do you really think I'd leave a door with a lock you can pick open, MacGyver?!??!" it sounded like Murdoc's voice!

    ABC sort of did run with the "spinoff" idea albeit not in the "MacGyver" realm as Robert Urich and Dalton James played a father and son driving cross-country on a motorcycle in "Crossroads". It was a pretty drab melodrama though and was canceled after five episodes in 1992.

    Some nice inside information about the episodes he worked on. Very interesting that he co-opted some of the material later used on "Eye of Osiris" to fit the script for "Passages". I definitely would have figured it would be the other way around! Interesting also that "Eye of Osiris" was originally intended to be a two-parter.

    I knew John worked on "Counterstrike" back in 1992-93 but had no idea the show was produced in France. Very fortunate timing that being there made it easier for him to write and produce one of the two MacGyver movies. Others pointed out in recent years that the resolution of "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull" seemed lifted from "MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis".

    The teenage revenge fantasy sounds fun. Wonder if it's a film or a novel.

    Great thanks to Mr. Sheppard for taking the time to offer so excellent answers and help me learn a few things. With no extras on the "MacGyver" DVD set, it seems we're getting a belated fix of them with these interviews to the crew. Great thanks especially to Nick for doing all the leg work to track down and interview all of our heroes!

    1. One of my favorite things to learn about is the inspiration behind the episodes, like we heard from Stephen Downing in Deadly Dreams and David Rich in Jack in the Box. I haven't seen the Manchurian Candidate either, but based on John Sheppard's description, I think I better stick with the original. :)

      I also had never heard of "The Lady from Shanghai" but looked it up and found this scene in the hall of mirrors. It's cool to think that these writers were so well versed in the history of film that they were able to draw on things like this and adapt them seamlessly and brilliantly into an episode of MacGyver.

      Seriously, can you imagine a Dr. Zito/Murdoc episode? Wow. That would have been one for the ages.

      And I remember watching Counterstrike as a kid and liking it. Don't remember too much about it except that Christopher Plummer was in it - that would be a fun one to revisit.

    2. And thanks for the shout out - it is too bad that there were no extras on the DVD and I'm glad that these Q and A's are a small step in helping to fill the void! And the Phoenix Foundation podcast guys have been doing a great job so far getting some awesome guests - looking forward to seeing who they will have in their podcasts down the road.

    3. I'm been impressed with the interviews the Phoenix Foundation guys have scored thus far. Peter Jurasik, Vernon Wells, and especially Kay Lenz are pretty impressive scores this many years later. They have plenty of additional contextual information about previous roles for the actors and older movies with similar story arcs to the "MacGyver" episodes in the podcasts. I listen every Friday.

  2. If we're gonna pull the gang together - might as well grab Teri Hatcher and Bruce McGill while we're at it. I'd watch the heck out of that MacGyver movie - Zito, Murdoc, Penny and Jack? c'mon - =)