Sunday, September 6, 2015

David Englebach: A Conversation

David Engelbach is an experienced writer and director who wrote "Gold Rush" in MacGyver's fourth season.  I always love talking to episode writers, and I was fortunate to get a hold of Mr. Engelbach and ask him some questions. 

NS: How did you get involved with MacGyver?

DE: I recently had completed the writing of an independent feature.  The return on independent movies can be long and coming, and I needed some cash.  My agents specialized in television and had put together the package for MacGyver when it went to the network originally, so they had a good relationship with the show.

One day they called and said, "We got you a gig on MacGyver."  I had never seen it, but I knew my mom watched it.  I called her up and she summarized the show for me in three sentences.  Also my agents sent me a VHS with a previous episode that I watched to get some context.

NS: Where did the idea for the story in "Gold Rush" come from?

DE: I talked to producer Stephen Downing and asked him what they were looking for in the script.  He said, "Snow.  We have a lot of snow and don't know what to do with it."

I've always been interested in history.  I knew about stories in WWII where the U.S. supplied the Russians and British with tanks and aircraft, and in exchange they paid the U.S. government in gold.  I thought what if one of these planes with gold went missing, then years later a satellite sees it, and one of the people involved doesn't want the Russians to get it, and then it went from there.

NS: Did you go up to Vancouver?

DE: Yes, they invited me up there for the script re-write.  They didn't have any major changes they wanted in the script, just finessing a couple things to fit into the standard MacGyver pattern and to make the show less expensive.  I remember spending about two weeks in my hotel room struggling with a computer they had given me that had a different operating system than what I was used to.  And since I had been in L.A. for a while, it had been a long time since I had seen snow, and I remember making a snowball on my balcony and hurling it across the street.

NS: Did you meet Richard Dean Anderson?

DE: Yes, we had lunch together.  But most of the time was spent in my hotel room or with Steve Downing and his staff.

NS: This episode has some impressive sets and stunt work including an elaborate ice cave filled with booby traps and a sled loaded with golden bars.  One of my readers, Mark, has said:

Most dazzling about this episode was the production and stunt logistics here. If something like this were done on TV today it would be all cheesy CGI and would look like a cartoon...but for MacGyver it was filmed on location and required the construction of elaborate set designs such as the ice cave. I'll stick my neck out and say it was the best produced hour of television in the 1980s.

DE: I’d like to take credit for that but I can’t -- that is the work of the producers and director. By that time in the series, they had gotten into their rhythm and knew what they were doing. I remember being concerned about how they would find the right kind of plane, and I was impressed when they brought in the frame of a real DC-3.  

NS: Did you have any other opportunities to work on MacGyver? 

DE: The producers liked my work on this episode and they asked me to stay on staff, but I was doing other projects in L.A. and so I declined.  

NS: What are you up to now?

DE: I no longer write or direct, but I teach screenwriting and directing at the Savannah College of Art and Design. 


  1. Another great interview. I was impressed that he got a writing gig on "MacGyver" having never seen the show. They always say in scriptwriting handbooks that the best way to work your way into a TV show is to know the characters inside out. Three-sentence summaries from your mother seldom cuts it when it comes to getting a writing gig. It certainly worked out though and Engelbach sure ran with the "do a story with snow" request and took it about as far as one could in the context of a TV show with a 1989 budget.

    Thanks for quoting my line. I really do think this was a dazzling production, and I remember Rick Drew singling out this one in his 20-year-old e-mail comments as an episode they were nervous about going in since so many possible things could go wrong and really mess up their timeline. Not sure if you're aware but back in 2001 the Pentagon tapped into a number of Hollywood writers interested in hearing their thoughts on how to take on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. David Engelbach was among those selected. I remember Jon Stewart quipping "Let me repeat that...the writer of MacGyver was brought in by the U.S. government to figure out how to take on bin Laden."

    1. I didn't know that about him being invited to the Pentagon -- I wish I did because that would have been an interesting thing to ask him about!