Set 50 years in the future, Defying Gravity has been called Grey's Anatomy in space. It may also be Lost in space. But it's definitely not Lost In Space.
"Fifty years ago we didn't have iPods or cell phones or Internet or ATMs, but we still had cars, we still had houses with four walls, we still had television," said director David Straiton in a recent interview. "Fifity years from now, it's not The Jetsons. There will be inventions that we can't even think of yet, but I think life will look pretty much the same. So that's really the approach, that life isn't all that further advanced except for maybe a few gadgets along the way."
The Los Angeles-based, Toronto and Montreal-bred director is temporarily living in my 'hood, the "future city" of Vancouver, to work on the first episode, where he'll help set the tone of the 13-episode series as a whole.
"I rode my bike home the other day underneath the SkyTrain and I thought, this is the future," he recalled. "Vancouver embraces a lot of ideas that the world should become. You have a really strong public transit infrastructure, you have the SkyTrain and bike paths. A lot of people live in high-density housing, where they're building up instead of building out, and smaller apartments. That's the future."
Written by Grey's Anatomy alumnus James Parriott and starring Ron Livingston, Defying Gravity focuses on the lives of mission control and the astronauts on a journey to the closest planets, with flashbacks to their pre-mission lives.
"It's a science fact show versus a science fiction show," said Straiton, defining its core themes as humanity and morality. "The show also has a mystery component, like Lost, in that we're going to discover the mission has a secret component that none of the crew know about, and it starts to affect the mission. And that's all I can tell you."
Pilot versus Series
He regularly works on various ongoing series, which is a far different experience from establishing the visual template of a new series like Defying Gravity or other pilots. "When I do House, for example, I'm walking into a show that's up and running, and I'm part of an already working mechanism. You're coming in for eight days to prep, cast, come up with whatever ideas you want as a director, and then basically eight days later you're shooting a show. With a pilot, I'm here for almost a month in prep."
"On an eight-day schedule, the first idea that jumps off the page is the idea that you'll do, because you don't have a lot of time to do anything complicated. For this one, I'm still sitting on the couch thinking about what I want to do. I'm still working on what I feel visually and tonally the show is."
He plans to inject his own sensibility on the look and feel of the series as well as influence the casting decisions, only about half of which had been finalized when we talked. The cast now includes Christina Cox, Laura Harris, Zahf Paroo, and Florentine Lahme in addition to Livingston.
"That's the ongoing challenge of any pilot. We all have our opinion on what the show should be. Whether it's just a pilot, or whether it's a pilot going to series, we all have our beliefs on what we think the characters should be like."
He makes the process sound like a win/lose proposition. "I think it's about battles that you lose and things that you have to accept. I'm not sure I believe that television is a collaborative medium. A lot of times you're working for people who have strong opinions. I'll work on House, for example, where you'll have a lot of say on stuff, and at the same time there are things that happen that you don't have any control over because you're a guest in someone else's house." No pun intended, I'm assured.
While pilots allow more time to plan, the pace of TV production doesn't generally allow for a lot of reflection. "Television is like gesture drawing," he said, explaining for the benefit of my art school ignorance the process of making quick sketches of a model's series of movements. "You never have time to fully absorb a script or get heavily intellectual with something because it's go, go, go, and then it's gone. A lot of your decisions are instinct and survival."
Canada versus US
Initially a commercial director, Straiton got his longer-format television break on Traders, where he worked for three seasons. His early series work included Da Vinci's Inquest and other Canadian shows at the same time as he was establishing himself in the United States.
"When you're working there, in Los Angeles, it really is the centre of the film universe for the western world," he said. "They do it big and they do it right. Here's the difference between Canadians and Americans: Americans commit in a way that we can only dream about."
Budget differences are part of that discrepancy he sees between the two countries' productions, but it seems television production in general is very much like life itself: "It doesn't matter how much money you have, you never have enough."
"Things have to be done on a budget everywhere," he added. "It doesn't matter if you're on House or this show, every script is more ambitious than the money you have. You have to come up with creative ways to make the show cool or interesting."
Defying Gravity is a hybrid, a co-production between Canada's CTV and Fox Television Studios in the United States. While it has broadcasters set for Canada, Britain, and Germany, no American network has been announced yet, though it seems likely that's only a matter of time.
"This show definitely has a very strong go-for-it attitude," Straiton said. "They're doing it big — as big as they can based on the financing. It's an ambitious show."
Director versus Star
He was attracted to the series because of the "strong writing pedigree" of Perriott as well as his own relationship with executive producer Michael Edelstein (Desperate Housewives). "They're the kind of people I want to be in business with," Straiton said.
He's worked with some big names and strong personalities throughout his career, people like producers Aaron Spelling (Charmed), John Brunton, and Albie Hecht whose rare loyalty he admires and has had cause to appreciate. He's also worked with well-established actors such as James Cromwell (My Own Worst Enemy), Peter Weller (Odyssey 5), and Hugh Laurie (House), but doesn't allow their stature and experience to change his directing style.
"Just because they have their character down, it doesn't mean they're not open to another version of a scene. With Hugh, you throw an idea at him and you watch it process. He's a really good listener and he's the smartest guy on set."
"It's fun to work for a guy like Hugh Laurie," said Straiton, who will direct four episodes of House this season and is aware I'm a fan. "He's a remarkable actor and truly an amazing individual."
He didn't name names of the more dysfunctional sets he's worked on, but was full of praise for the Fox medical drama and its star. "On that set, it's a respect game, and he sets the tone. He comes to set prepared, he's always on time and ready to go, he knows his lines and everyone else's lines. He never has his BlackBerry, he's never on his phone, you never see him texting anyone. He's always there to work. That's where the bar is set and everyone falls in line because of that professionalism."
Past versus Present
Despite the long resume peppered with high-profile series, Straiton says his career highlight is simply the privilege of working. "You don't ever think about it as being the big time. You don't feel like you've made it. I don't think you ever feel like you've made it."
Proving his theory that television allows little time to bask in past glories, after Defying Gravity he's off to shoot the second-last episode of House's fifth season and has several projects in the works for the future. He and his writing partner recently sold a show to Fox Television Studios, plus he's working on a graphic novel and pursuing producing opportunities. "I think I'm the only director who wants to be a producer," he laughed.
But for the present, production on Defying Gravity starts next week at Vancouver's Bridge Studios and at locations such as the University of British Columbia, the backdrop for the fictional future space agency. Watch for the futuristic series to air … sometime in the near future.