Friday, April 17, 2015

Tony Westman: A Conversation

Tony Westman is a cinematographer who worked on "MacGyver" for many years.  I've always been impressed with the way the series was shot, and it was a pleasure to ask him some questions about his time on the show.  Thanks to Mr. Westman for his time, and here's a link to his website.

NS: How did you first end up getting involved with MacGyver, and what was your role and your responsibility on the show?

TW: I started working on MacGyver in season 2 as the 2nd unit Director of Photography (DP). This was the most fun I have ever had. The 2nd unit and 'insert' unit do the majority of stunts and action sequences and all the MacGyverisms that do not include the principle actors, whose time is very valuable. There never seemed to be any budgetary issues, and we just kept shooting until the execs were happy with the results. The producers, Steve Downing, Michael Greenburg and John Rich were very involved with all aspects of the MacGyver franchise, and were very style conscious. It was a big deal for Hollywood to export this show to be done in Canada, which was just being recognized as 'Hollywood North' due to the low dollar and tax credits that really established Vancouver as a production centre. Eventually the main unit DP wanted to do some directing, so as his ‘understudy’ I was allowed the opportunity to fill in as needed.

NS: What was it like working on the show?

TW: The show was very challenging, everything was big time Hollywood. Usually an hour show is done in a week, MacGyver episodes often went on for 8 or ten days, then the 2nd unit could go on for a week or two. I think 'Widowmaker' took the longest due to the complicated stunts, effects, etc.  The MacGyverisms were often tricky because that was the pivot point of the Hero’s skill. Sometimes we had a special director fly in from LA just to do a day or two of work just to be sure things were done properly. One time John Rich was so upset after we did the same gag over and over and still was not right, so he personally supervised the work for several weeks until he felt we as a crew knew absolutely what was expected. We called this MacGyver school. John could be a fearsome critic, and we dreaded the moment when we were handed the telephone and John would tear a strip off for some error in MacGyver logic. However, I enjoyed his tutorage, John Rich was a bright man and knew his filmmaking skills, which stood me in good stead.

NS: What episodes were your favorite and also which were the most challenging?

TW: One of the most enjoyable episodes was "Serenity", the Wild West dream show. Gold Rush was challenging due to weather and the scale of the sets and lighting challenges. Widowmaker had tremendous logistics, aerial units, long cold nights with stunts and action. Sometimes the special effects would go haywire, which was dangerous when you use propane, primer cord, and dynamite. I liked all the Jack Dalton shows as well as the Murdoc character. These were broad adventure/comedy good guy/ bad guy stories that had their own charm on and off the set.

NS: What was it like working with Stephen Downing?

TW: Steve Downing was the creator of the show. He had been an LA cop for 20 years, and knew the dark underside of crime, guns and variability of justice. He was committed to MacGyver never using a gun no matter what was at stake, he would always use his wits and MacGyverisms, to get out of trouble. I think Steve enjoyed bugging the NRA (who used to give him a bad time in return). It was not often 'issues' drive a successful main stream TV show.

NS: What was your favorite part about the show?

TW: What I liked most about the series was the team spirit and collection of creative people really engaged in what was deemed to be a quality project. 

NS: What other tv series did you enjoy working on?

TW: Another TV series that was fun to do was the 4400. That was my big break into writing and directing. 

NS: What are you up to now?

TW: I have retired from the filmmaking business, teach part time at Emily Carr University and have just finished my Masters Degree. Still photography is a passion that continues to engage me. 


  1. Another great interview. Definitely a name I remembering seeing in the credits. Sounds like John Rich was an acquired taste on the set and could be quite domineering. I remember Bruce Kessler giving a more unconditional critique of Rich as a hardass than Westman, who apparently liked being able to work under pressure, something I bet everybody on a show like "MacGyver" would have to thrive on. Either way, it sounds like John Rich had a much bigger role on the series than I ever believed.

    That's the first I heard about they had a special director coming in from LA to work on the show for a couple of days. I wonder if they got credit for this at all, even in the closing credits. I've seen several accounts where the crew cited "Gold Rush" as an epic production challenge, but I always thought "The Widowmaker" seemed like it would be too and Westman sure seemed to vindicate that. I liked what he said about "long, cold nights preparing stunts" as I can just imagine crew members harnessed in on the side of the mountain rigging stunts in the middle of the night to be sure to finish the production on schedule.

    I remember the show having a big kerfuffle with the NRA over "Blood Brothers". While Steve Downing may have enjoyed it, I think the show probably lost some of its potential audience due to the character's anti-gun posture. I don't have a problem with that per se, but the demographic of viewers who would typically go for a show like "MacGyver" would certainly overlap with NRA membership ranks! I know a couple of hard-core gun lovers back in the day who hated "MacGyver" because he was for gun control, and that was a generation ago before firearms fetishism has become the religion it is today.

    The 4400? Not familiar with that show. Any idea where Emily Carr University is where he teaches now?

    Nice once again to hear from a crew member who had such a great experience with the show. Seems like a recurring theme with crew members across the spectrum.

    1. The 4400 was a sci-fi show about a group of ppl who had disappeared from various places over a period of time. At least, that's what I picked up from wikipedia: It ran on either USA or SciFi (before the change over to SyFy *eyeroll*). Kaj-Erik Eriksen was in it, according to the cast sheet on the sidebar.

      According to google, Emily Carr University is in British Columbia. Architecturally interesting buildings.

      It seems to be rather consistent that folks liked working on the show.

    2. I thought that title sounded familiar and now I remember Kaj-Erik Eriksen citing it as a show he was on. The way Westman described it as "his first break into writing and directing" I thought it was a show from the 70s or something.

    3. I think it had a bit of it's own 'core' fanbase. I've heard people talk about it here and there.

    4. Amazing to think of the work involved with some of the shots and stunts (e.g. the long cold nights on the Widowmaker). In the past I've railed against the CGI-ification of today's movies and tv, and I still stand by that, but it's also a stance that's a lot easier to take while watching the tv screen in the comfort of my living room. Given the expense, work involved, and risk involved with some of the stunts and visual shots of old, I can at least understand why they end up going CGI.

    5. I think a lot of them legitimately thinks CGI looks better too. Perhaps compared to poorly edited shows like "Eagles" with a ton of unconvincing stock footage that's arguably true. But nothing from the CGI era compares to "The Widowmaker" and "Gold Rush" as far as I'm concerned. I'm guessing the crew members were paid very well for their late nights rigging stunts. Money isn't everything, of course, but it would certainly help offset the discomfort of the long work weeks.