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Exclusive interview: Terminator - The Sarah Connor Chronicles' co-producer Ashley Edward Miller

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Friday, April 24, 2009

As of today it's been two weeks since the broadcast of the second season finale of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It's been a hard-fought season for the show's creative team, not knowing if they would be back after the first-half of the season and struggling to build their audience after being moved from Monday to Friday nights. But creatively Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has taken pause after ending the season on a high note, leaving fans to speculate and wonder where a third season could take them.

I'll make no bones about the fact that I'm a fan of T: TSCC. What showrunner Josh Friedman and his team of writers/producers have done is impressive. They could have simply rode on the coattails of the popularity of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and done a simple weekly action series that had Sarah Connor and her son John hitting the reset button at the end of every episode. Instead what Friedman and his commandos have done is not just build on the mythology of the Terminator universe but give us consistently well thought out shows that touch on issues like the morality of torture, whether a single human life is worth sacrificing to save billions and the implications for humans creating an artificial intelligence. Does that bring to mind a certain other sci-fi series that recently ended its four-year run? If you are reminded of Battlestar Galactica that's alright because The Sarah Connor Chronicles is proving to be cut from the same quality of cloth as BSG. Simply put, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is one of the best series on TV right now that you should be watching.

There's uncertainty about the fate of the series. Friday nights aren't known for being the best places for TV shows to grow their audience and the list of cancelled shows broadcast by Fox and beamed out on that day of the week is both long and infamous (I can practically see the Firefly Browncoats figeting restlessly at the corner of my eye.) But let's also remember that there was once another Friday night sci-fi underdog on Fox that, after struggling in ratings for its first two seasons, went on to become a big hit for the network: The X-Files. Fox reveals whether The Sarah Connor Chronicles has been renewed for a third season on May 18, the day it announces its fall schedule.

Shortly after the airing of the season two finale I had the opportunity to talk to Ashley Edward Miller, one of the show's co-producers and co-writer on several episodes. The last two episodes of season two answered some of the big questions fans had been asking about who Sarah's enemies were but also created loads of new mysteries. Obviously Ashley wants to keep the show's secrets safe and I tried my best to not ask things that I knew he couldn't answer, but our conversation covers not just the show's storyline but also that there's an overall plan that the writers have in mind. I also asked him about what, if any, effect the incorrect rumors of the show being cancelled that were published by Entertainment Weekly's Michael Ausiello have had on the show's prospects for coming back. It's an interview that I hope die-hard fans of the show will dig (temporal mechanics nerd questions!) as well as give any of you on the fence about watching that little bit of encouragement to give Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles a chance.

Ladies and gents, I present to you Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' co-producer Ashley Edward Miller.


* * *


Coming Attractions: So, now that the second season is over, what are your thoughts on how things worked out?

Ashley Edward Miller: In the broad strokes, this is a Josh question. The rest of us are here to help him get where he wants to go more thananything else. But speaking for myself, my overriding thought is surprise at how much stuff we put on the table and how much of it we pulled together by the  time we got to "Born to Run". And by the way, that's not just stuff from this season -- that's stuff reaching all the way back to the pilot. I feel like there's very little we set up that we didn't pay off in some way.

CA: Were you satisfied that you hit all the notes that you wanted to looking back from a year ago to today?

AEM: In terms of characters, absolutely. One of the great things about working for Josh is that he focuses relentlessly on character. Emotions. Relationships. I think if the show has an overriding strength, it's that. Josh never let us forget what the essence of drama really is: two people with needs, and something between them. I couldn't be more satisfied with our work, collectively, on that score.

CA: The show has really shown itself to be intrinsically detailed with its storylines. How much preparation went into coming up with the story arcs in S2 when the writers started to map it out, and how far ahead did the roadmap need to be established? For instance, did you know where you wanted to end the season when you began it or did that come about after the show was picked up for its backend of episodes in S2?

AEM: Josh always had a very strong idea of how he wanted this season to begin, and how he wanted it to end. To his credit, he was open to making changes along the way -- "strategic adjustments" may be the best way of describing them -- but he never lost sight of his objective.

One of my mentors and best friends is Robert Wolfe, who described the process as being like surfing. You've got the wave. You're on the board. You can see the spot on the beach you want to land, and you know where the hurty things are under the water. You can't control the wave, but if you ride it deftly and keep focus, you can stay out of trouble and land pretty close to that spot you first envisioned. I've never heard anyone put it better. If someone tells you that his television story arc proceeded and ended exactly as he planned, he's either a liar or the luckiest bastard on Earth.

We were pretty lucky, because in my opinion, we stuck the landing. Stuck it. Gold medal stuck it. And that's all Josh.

That said, we didn't know what all the episodes were when we began the season. We knew some signposts, and we knew where we wanted the characters to go. Then we turned the characters loose and let them surprise us. Probably the character who surprised us most on some level was Cromartie... Actors have a sneaky way of bringing things you never anticipated. Compare the cold killing machine questioning that kid in the bowling alley at the end of "Brothers of Nablus" to the child-like being who plays with Bionicles, and forms such a wonderful bond with Savannah Weaver. That's amazing stuff, and when it works you milk it for all it's worth. Sometimes more than you ever thought you would.

CA: OK, here's a bit of a geeky question but it just shows that the writers of the show are thinking about this stuff too. The show explains that time travel doesn't create paradoxes, instead it creates new future timelines that seem to rewrite over the ones that Sarah, John and Derek remember. Was this a conscious decision made early on that you guys had to figure out, and then explain to the audiences (for instance, when Derek explains to Jesse that what happened in his future isn't the same as what she remembers happened)? Does this kind of rule for time travel make it easier or harder for your team and coming up with stories?

AEM: This was a very conscious decision on Josh's part, and it's inherent to the premise of the show. Not to say it didn't lead to many long, brain-torching discussions in the writer's room. We called them "the rabbit hole" -- you have to go down there, but who the fuck is the guy in the hat? You know?

Given that, rules makes it much easier to write stories. A strong rule creates drama because all the characters live within the rule. Compare the stultifying technobabble on Voyager with the elegant problem-solving of the original Star Trek -- one show existed in a world where rerouting the EPS conduits could fix most anything; the other show featured characters who had to let Edith Keeler die to save the future. There's a vast difference between the two, and I'm so happy to be part of something that leans toward the latter.

Funny that you mention Derek and Jesse, because I think that was probably the best expression of the rule in action. It turned an intellectual idea into an emotional one. We've all had an experience where someone we think we know turns out to be someone else entirely, in terms of who they are and what they do. People close to us can have experiences we don't know about, that we can't understand. Profound experiences that shape them in non-deterministic ways. Jesse lost a child. Derek executed his best friend. It's just incredibly powerful stuff. It made every trip down the rabbit hole worth the time and effort.

Another example (filed under "happy"): Derek and John sitting on a park bench, watching young Derek and Kyle play an innocent game of baseball. In context -- the looming end of the world, the tragedies that will shape those boys -- is there any moment in the show that's more lovely?

If you can't change fate, there is no hope. I like to think that's what this show is all about. The fans agree, I think.

CA: Given the show's nature to raise new mysteries about the true motives of Cameron, Catherine Weaver and the makers of the drones, does the creative team have an ultimate destination or resolution in mind for these questions?

AEM: I'm sorry, my dog is barking his head off. Crazy beagle -- love him, but he's dumb as a bag of hammers. I didn't hear the question.

CA: Got it. OK, how about this. Let's talk a bit about the drones and their creators. Whose idea was it to use the look of the drones from the California UFO photos that hit the public eye from a couple of years ago and incorporate them into the show's mythology? Are the writers aware that using the drone UFO look caused a stir among the online UFO communities? Some of them accused Fox of creating the drone photos and then laying in wait to spring the surprise at the right time.

AEM: That was all Josh. He's obsessed with the drones. And yes, we're very aware that it caused a stir. Which I understand was an unfortunate result of timing. It was NOT a viral marketing ploy on our part, and I know Josh is on record saying just that.

CA: Early on in the second season the show gave away that Catherine Weaver is one of the liquid metal Terminators from the future, a T-1001. Now after watching the finale we see that Weaver has a protective, almost motherly instinct for the new artificial intelligence John Henry whom she believes can save the world for her human daughter Savannah. Did the team have it in mind right from Weaver's introduction to have her be a Terminator version of the Sarah/John relationship?

AEM: I don't think you can set out and say "today I will create parallelism among my characters". Those kinds of things are emergent effects. They happen naturally. If Sarah Connor were an architect building a shopping mall, people would wonder if Weaver was really just a Terminator version of an architect. And that's valid, but it's also bullshit on some level... It's very easy to become so caught up in what's essentially a very intellectual, artificial way of looking at  your characters that they start to exist only for their own sake.

Early on in the process -- say, season one -- Josh told us if we were building a house, we didn't have to make every door and window look like a house. The house is the house. It's a good dramatic rule, because it stops you from outsmarting yourself, and frees you to look at the elements of your story on their own terms. Metaphorically, Sarah is a door. Weaver is a window. They're both part of the house.

CA:  Something that's been bugging at me, I thought it was strange that Weaver is called a T-1001 and not a that right or a mistake by Fox? Is she a little bit different from the T-1000 in T2 just like Cameron is a different Terminator model than the T-800s or T-888s?

AEM: As for Terminator types... very fuzzy question with very fuzzy answers. Not because we haven't thought about them, just because the distinctions in some cases are pretty subtle.

CA: Let's talk about what happened right at the top of the second-to-last episode of the season. The death of Derek was shocking and unlike any other deaths of a major character on TV -- he went down without any swell of music and like a redshirt. How was that approached in the writers room? Had the writers already envisioned how the season was going to end so you knew at that time that this wasn't the end of Derek?

AEM: Obviously, killing off one of your most interesting and popular characters will lead to some fairly intense discussion in the writer's room. Whether or not it was part of a plan, or if you believe you will bring that character "back", you're definitely gonna have a conversation. If every facet of the event doesn't mean something, somehow, there's nothing to talk about and it's not worth doing. That's true of any show, or should be.

CA: What have been the challenges in having a show where huge visual effects are necessary some of the time (the future scenes, showing the T-1001 morph)? Do you come up with these scene ideas and try to met them out over the course of the season or do you have to reign it back in? Were there any big scenes like this that had to be dropped because of their feasibility?

AEM: I can't recall any time where we discussed a VFX heavy scene out of the context of story. Sometimes you just can't avoid it -- if you're  in the future, there's generally going to be some kind of VFX requirement. You approach it the way you approach everything else, balancing out what you would like to see vs what you need to see. You have to attack a problem like that globally. So yes, there are often times when you need to reign things in because the time or money isn't there. Then there are moments when you realize you don't need an effect at all. The best example was probably "Today is The Day, Part 2" -- Erin Fleming did such an amazing job in some shots where we had planned for her to be a glorified T-1001 stand-in, we just used the film with her in it. And how can you not? She was fantastic.

CA: The character names of Ellison and Cameron are the most well-known nods to the creators of Terminator. Billy Wisher is another. Is Catherine Weaver a nod to Sigourney Weaver? (Savannah = Newt?) Are there any others that we're not picking up on?

AEM: There are all kinds of in-jokes and sly references in our show. Half  the fun is finding them, so don't let me spoil it for you.

CA: Speaking of in-jokes, John Henry the Terminator playing D&D in his "mom's" basement in the finale?

AEM: Well, I play it in my friend's living room. So John Henry is in good, if geeky company.

CA: The fans know that the show has been struggling in the ratings but the rumors that it had already been cancelled as well as the  revelations in the final two episodes seem to have led to a sizeable outpouring of fan support online. What are your thoughts on the EW article? Do you think that this kind of talk hurt the show's chances for renewal?

AEM: I thought it was ridiculous. There's no question that the show has been struggling, but there's also been no ambiguity about when Fox intends to decide our fate. When you realize how many times the press has declared this show dead, you start to see how silly it can all get. I remember when the report came out that the sets had been destroyed, and that this somehow meant we'd been cancelled. It took every ounce of self-control we all had not to post something on the internet... but the reality is you can't respond to a report like that without giving away the finale, or at least offering up a clue. Bad reporting can put you in an impossible position when you're trying to protect plot twists.

CA: Let's imagine that May 18 is today and Fox gives the show a third season. How much planning or talk have the show's creators already done for S3 storylines? I'm not asking you for blow spoilers for us but is there's a plan for S3? Is the creative team talking now or waiting to see what Fox does first?

AEM: Josh has always had a very strong idea of where he wants to take this show.

CA: Will Terminator Salvation affect anything that might be seen in S3?

AEM: Josh has always had a very strong idea of where he wants to take this show.

CA: OK, how about this. Has the T:TSCC team been aware of what is revealed in Salvation or are you going in blind like most of us?

AEM: Some of us are somewhat aware, although the things we think we know are always subject to change. So I'm about as informed as your average reporter for aintitcool. One funny thing, though... apparently, Skynet in T4 processes coltan to create the endoskeleton alloy. I'm given to understand the producers thought this came from the other movies, but it's not true. Our show originated the use of coltan as an evolutionary step for Terminator design. Higher melting point, so you can't just toss Uncle Bob in the steel and expect him to evaporate. Take THAT, continuity mavens.

CA: Nice. If the sky were the limit, what's the number one thing that you would do or show in T:TSCC? Arnold? Skynet? Future war battles?

AEM: The great thing about working on TSCC as a fan is that I've had an opportunity to do or show almost everything I've personally wanted to do or show. I feel particularly blessed that Zack and I were given so many opportunities to play in the Future War and explore it. So yeah, you always wish you had more money to show more shit blowing up, but at the end of the day we've been able to tell stories we care about. That's huge. That's special. I wouldn't trade it for anything. And that's all thanks to Josh.


* * *


A big thank you to Ashley Edward Miller for saddling up and letting me put him on the spot. You can watch the last 11 episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles at Hulu along with behind-the-scenes material and interviews with other members of the show's creative team. Keep up to date with what's happening with Ashley Edward Miller and showrunner Josh Friedman on Twitter. You can also join SaveTerminator and Save the SCC on Twitter to show Fox your support for good, smart television. God knows we need more of it, right?

Posts: 417
Posted: 14 years 23 weeks ago

DUDE pat you are the freeking man. That was awesome bro. Thank you.

The Best Music, and The Best New Talk Radio!
Posts: 5753
Posted: 14 years 23 weeks ago

Awesome, Pat!
If you can, pass along that we love the show and are behind them and hope it gets renewed.

Richard Gozinya, Harold Snatch and Wilbur Jizz. Together we are the law firm Gozinya, Snatch and Jizz.
Posts: 1430
Posted: 14 years 23 weeks ago

Great interview, Pat! I hope you are able to do many more interviews like this in the future.
Posts: 94
Posted: 14 years 23 weeks ago

Awesome, thanks Pat.

Fingers still crossed ....

Posts: 1
Posted: 14 years 23 weeks ago

This way a good interview and I found it informative, but Lanie Grace ripped this shreds at her site.