November 11, 2008

Hollywood Makes a Cameo at RPCC

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Ask anyone who considers himself a fan of Battlestar Galactica what it means to him and you might not receive a lucid response. He might say, “It’s cool,” perhaps, or ramble on about Admiral Adama’s parallels to contemporary politicians, or simply say, “Everything!” Whatever the response, it’s clear that Galactica has tunneled its way into a major niche of popular culture, gathering a veritable fleet of sci-fi fans and regular dudes alike — even earning a shout-out, like any other great American cultural institution (read: Cornell University), on NBC’s The Office.
But listening to the new Galactica’s creator and executive producer, Ron Moore ’86, speak at Robert Purcell Community Center on Friday, it became clear that even sci-fi action shows, no matter how popular, would not exist in our pop culture if it weren’t for artists risking everything to pursue their dreams.
Moore, just one of many esteemed Cornell alumni who never sought to finish a degree, along with actor Christopher McDonald — best known to pop culture as the vile Shooter McGavin in Adam Sandler’s epic Happy Gilmore — spoke about life in the film business, paying particular attention to the difficulty of establishing oneself in Hollywood.
“It’s a tricky, crazy, nutty journey,” said McDonald, whose breakout role, he reminded the audience, wasn’t the arrogant, over-pompous Shooter but the disgusting, abusive Daryll in Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise. “I was typecasted for that role,” he said, though he’s still amazed at his notoriety for the Gilmore role. “People see me and say, ‘Oh, hey, Shooter!’ I don’t know. It’s funny.” Still, McDonald’s journey began like anyone else’s: staring down a scary horizon with the ever-looming possibility of failure. He decided, in the end, to just act, saying, “If I succeed, great. If I don’t, I’ll starve.”
Moore, meanwhile, seemed nostalgic about his struggle. “It all began when I flunked out of Cornell,” he said with a smile. Lost and confused, Moore was persuaded by a friend to move out to California and become a writer, eventually landing a staff writer position on Star Trek: The Next Generation after meeting a girl who had a connection to the show. “It’s a really discouraging business, in a lot of ways,” he said. “Everyone I know who’s had success in this business knew someone who knew someone who knew someone.” Still, he told the audience, everyone gets their break eventually — it just depends whether you capitalize on the opportunity when it appears.
Moore and McDonald, both members of the Kappa Alpha Society, opened early to questions, which ranged from what it’s like to work with Adam Sandler (“He’s a very bright guy,” said McDonald. “You wouldn’t know that—but he’s very bright”) to the presence of Galactica’s endless allusions to real-life events.
Asked about re-making Galactica when it was already an established 1970s series, Moore offered some insight into his creative philosophy. In Battlestar Galactica, a civilization similar to ours is virtually wiped out after a surprise attack on its major population. “I knew that if you took that premise seriously,” said Moore, “in this moment in time [after September 11th], it could be something special.”
Both speakers emphasized the importance of craft. Asked, “What do you enjoy most about what you do?” Moore spoke about cherishing his time in the writers’ room, often spending hours on end around a table, debating ideas, then walking on the set and seeing someone perform those ideas. McDonald, for his part, simply said, “Doing great material.” To prepare for his role in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, a docudrama about the great quiz-show scandals of the 1950s, McDonald “immersed [himself]” in quiz shows from that era. Moore mused about a similar approach to science fiction; how can you study science fiction? “Imagination fills in the blanks,” he said.
Moore took a moment to note his nostalgia for Cornell. “I loved it and hated it [here]. I loved what it meant to be here.” Ultimately, however, it wasn’t his place. It was a soft reminder of the long, hard road both men have taken on their way to Hollywood fortune. After graduating Hobart College, McDonald had “dreams, but no plans.” Both men had to discover those plans and follow through with them. Hollywood is, after all, the ultimate School of Hard Knocks. “I would have benefited a great deal,” McDonald said, “had I known this stuff beforehand.”
After the talk, which lasted about an hour, I asked Moore and McDonald about the future. With successful careers behind them, do they still have any dreams?
“I want to make my own movie,” said McDonald. “Tell my own stories in my own way.”
Moore had similar dreams: “I want to direct a movie.” I asked him if he wants to move away from sci-fi, to tell different stories. “No,” he said, “because I continue to enjoy it.” I got the sense that, in the end, that’s what it’s all about. Everything else is just business.