Trek Director's School: Robert Duncan McNeill
Robert Duncan McNeill saw an opportunity and seized it. Much like Jonathan Frakes and Roxann Dawson, the former Voyager actor leveraged the opportunity to direct Trek into a second career as a director and producer. His long list of post-Trek shows includes Medium, Las Vegas, Chuck, Smash, The Mentalist, Blue Bloods, The Arrangement, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce and The Orville. But it all started with Voyager, as McNeill – to an extent – went through the unofficial Trek directors’ school initiated by Rick Berman and ultimately called the shots on eight Trek hours, namely the Voyager episodes “Sacred Ground,” “Unity,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Body and Soul” as well as the Enterprise installments “Cold Front,” "The Breach,” “Twilight” and “Countdown.” StarTrek.com chatted with the amiable McNeill backstage a couple of months ago during Destination Star Trek Germany in Dortmund, and he took us through his Trek directing experiences as well as addressed the possibility of directing Discovery at some point.
Is it true that you asked Rick Berman about you directing Voyager while you were shooting the pilot?
Yes. My memory of this is that literally on day one of the pilot, we – Rick, Garrett Wang, Brannon Braga and I, and I can’t remember who else -- were walking away from the sound stage and I said to Rick, "You know, Rick, I've been observing directors for a few years now, on different shows, but every show I get on seems to get canceled before we even complete a full season. So, I haven't had a chance to direct on anything up until now. I've been shadowing and observing, and you guys have had a history of letting actors direct. So, I'm just letting you know..."
And he said?
"Yeah, we'll see. In a couple of years. Let’s get the show going, and we'll see." I was like, "No, no, I want to direct first season, because I've been on shows that got canceled. As much as I believe this will run a long time, whatever it takes, I want try to direct as soon as possible. Will you let me know what I need to do?" I think that first day he thought it was just a lot of talk. But I kept speaking to him. I talked to Frakes and other people who’d done it. I started spending time in editing and screenings, particularly screenings when Rick was in the room. I wanted to hear what he liked, what he didn't, how he thought, how things could’ve been directed better... All of that.
So, it happened organically for you, rather than you following the established path of actors going through the unofficial directors’ school?
I guess so. Rick definitely had a list of things he wanted checked off. He wanted to know you'd spent time in post. But, in terms of a school or a formal syllabus, I don't remember anything like that. Like you say, it was unofficial and other people came at it different ways. If somebody went up to him and said, “I want to direct,” he'd say, “OK, you need to do this, this and this.” I'd kind of been doing it before that, so I just did more of what I'd been doing and also asked him, “What else do you think I need to look at?”
Which Trek directors did you shadow?
Les Landau. Jonathan. Rick Kolbe. Because I'd been shadowing directors and I'd been on the set a long time, I felt like where I was learning the most was in the editing room, going to post, sitting in production meetings, listening to how all the department budgets worked. Things like that.
“Sacred Ground” marked your Voyager directing debut. What were you feeling heading into it?
I was excited. I was ready. I was terrified. You run on adrenaline that first time or two, or 12. You don't know what you don't know when you start out directing. That's good, in a way, because, you're not locked into tricks and things you've done before. I've done enough episodes now that if I get into a situation, I can be like, “OK, I know how to get out of this. I know what tricks to use.” That's no always the most creative or the best way to do it. So, I think in the beginning, sometimes, being a little naïve about things is good.
How helpful was it that your first episode was pretty talky and focused on Kate Mulgrew?
It was a very talky episode. It wasn't tons of FX and action that you needed to worry about. That was probably a double-header of help. Kate was great. The guest cast we got was super-strong. I felt happy to have those actors, Becky Ann Baker and Estelle Harris and... who else? Harry Groener. They were all so good.
Have you seen it recently? What did you think?
I actually did see it, last year. There were a couple of places where I remembered getting into trouble a little bit with some FX moments. Or, there was a whole sequence in this vision chamber, where Kate goes in, walks around this altar and sticks her hand in the basket. Then, she has these visions. I look back on that, and I would’ve done it differently. I think.
You went on to direct three more Voyager episodes. Which were you happiest with, and why?
“Someone to Watch Over Me.” I think that was my best episode. It had comedy. I've been lucky enough to be able to do not just one-hour dramas, but comedy, over the years, as a director. Though my background as an actor wasn't heavy in comedy, I just feel comfortable in that genre. I like working on lighthearted scenes with actors and characters. I find it satisfying. I feel like I have a good radar for comedy.
Chuck proved that….
Chuck was perfect for me. Chuck had comedy and that was important, but it also had to be grounded in an emotional way with a love story, a family story or the best friend story. Then, it had to have action. That was a challenging show for directors because, some people come in with great action instincts, but they didn't know how to shoot comedy. Or, they'd come in with a drama instinct, but didn't know how to do action. When a director doesn’t have a good radar for comedy, they can push it too far or miss opportunities. It requires a very light touch. Getting back to “Someone to Watch Over Me,” that's what I really enjoyed about it, that it was a rare Voyager episode with some lighthearted moments, but also the romance.
And, of your Enterprise episodes, which were you most satisfied with? You directed “Cold Front,” “The Breach,” “Twilight” and “Countdown.”
The episode where the boys went down to the center of the planet. I loved that because it was a real production challenge. We literally just had a corner of the stage that we dressed for the rock climbing, the descent. I was happy with the way I was able to plan out that whole journey of rappelling and tunnels without having much of a set. We had 30 feet of rocks and that was it. So, to create those scenes with a couple of visual FX moments was exciting. There was a moment in the script, I think it was something like they slip and fall. It was a smaller sequence, initially. I remember pitching the idea of the Romancing the Stone sequence where they're sliding down the waterfall. I said, “We can build a slide on our little corner rock area. I can drag them across the floor. We can make it seem like they're falling half a mile down when, really, they're falling 15 feet.” I was excited about that sequence. Funny what you think of years later.
How open would you be to directing Discovery if the opportunity arose?
I wanted to direct Discovery. I met with their producing director. I didn't know the show that well, but I met with him on their last hiatus to talk about season two. I also produce now. So, I hire a lot of directors. The last few years, there's been a seismic shift in terms of the priorities toward female and diverse directors. That reality now has meant that what used to be normal, which was a lot of white guys, to be quite honest, has changed. Some shows are mostly women directing. I think Jessica Jones, last year, had all female directors. Handmaid's Tale. A woman may direct the next Star Trek movie. Most importantly, it's a wonderful thing that's happening. I’m proud that on other shows I’ve produced -- The Gifted, The Arrangement, Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce -- I’ve brought in female directors. But, to answer your question, Discovery does a limited number of episodes and a priority there is to get female and diverse directors, so there are fewer opportunities for people like me, which is a great thing. But, yeah, if the opportunity arose to direct Discovery and I fit what they needed and it fit my schedule, I'd love to do it.