November 29, 2014
“Growing up, I always liked the bad guys,” Joseph Mallozzi says from the couch of his furnished rental apartment in downtown Toronto. As he speaks, his three small, beloved, elderly dogs (two pugs and a French bulldog) lounge before him in the middle of the living room floor, each in his or her own small dog bed. Mallozzi has moved here temporarily from Vancouver to executive produce and showrun a new science fiction series for Syfy that he developed with his long-time writing partner and fellow executive producer, Paul Mullie. The pair is best known for their lengthy and successful run as writers and producers on all three iterations of Stargate, a sci-fi franchise that aired, in various forms, from 1997 to 2011.
Although he’s currently attired in a black T-shirt emblazoned with a bold, primary-colored Cowboy Bebop graphic (the reference is to a Japanese anime series that Mallozzi identifies as an influence on his new show), at work, his style reflects his preference for darker characters: “When the cameras start rolling, I’m in my suit and tie. I like to dress as a James Bond villain.”
Mallozzi and Mullie’s new series, Dark Matter has been in pre-production for two months and begins shooting in January. It will premiere on Syfy in the U.S., and on Space in Canada, sometime mid-2015. While the pair has executive produced and showrun previous series, Dark Matter marks the first time they’ve produced a show that they themselves created. “I’ve been developing this show for eight years,” Mallozzi says. “I had the idea for the show eight years ago, and I thought, ‘Once Stargate ends, maybe we can roll into this.‘ And then of course Stargate never ended. So it gave me plenty of time to really develop the characters and the backstory.” I ask whether Mallozzi feels extra pressure, given that this is his project, his creation. “Yeah I feel immense pressure,” he confesses. “But on the other hand, I’m really looking forward to it. This is one of those rare instances where we have a lot of creative freedom to tell the story we want to tell.”
That story is one of a crew of six people (and one android) who awaken from cryo-sleep aboard a long-range spacecraft, with no memory of who they are or how they got there. Little by little, over the course of the season, the characters’ backstories are revealed, and they learn first that someone purposely wiped their memories, and then that one of them wiped their memories. They discover that they have unsavory pasts, and struggle with that knowledge. “One of the nice things about Dark Matter is you’ve got seven characters to follow,” Mallozzi says. “And they’re all in their own ways going to attempt to make amends for their past or attempt to change. The classic Nature vs. Nurture. Are you born bad, or are you a product of your environment? Can people change? And I would say, as you watch the show, they all kind of change. Some more than others. Some are successful in rehabilitating themselves and seeing redemption. Others are not.”
I ask whether this theme has cropped up in any of Mallozzi’s previous writing. “That theme has cropped up in practically everything I’ve ever written,” he states unequivocally, and proceeds to list examples in addition to Dark Matter: three pilot scripts currently circulating; a short story Mallozzi penned for Lou Anders’ superhero compendium, Masked, and even Stargate: “I look at the character of Richard Woolsey, who’s a character we introduce very early on in SG-1, who’s this nebbishy, political ass-kisser, and we kind of rehabilitated him. And ultimately, when he became the commander of the Atlantis expedition [in the second series of the franchise, Stargate: Atlantis], he became actually quite lovable. He was one of my favorite characters to write for. If you create a bad guy who is not two-dimensional, but has depth to them, they become very interesting and become, in many ways, quite likeable. And hopefully, that’s what we’ll do with Dark Matter. I mean, these six people are terrible people. They’ve had terrible pasts, and despite their pasts, hopefully, like Tony Soprano, or Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire, or Vic Mackey, the Michael Chiklis character on The Shield, they’re people you initially may be wary of, maybe even hate, but will eventually come to love.”
The pressure and demands of producing and showrunning have unfortunately scarred Mallozzi’s personal life; several years ago, just as Stargate: Universe was premiering, he and his wife separated after eleven years of marriage. They eventually divorced. As he puts it, “I’m sure [the career] had a lot to do with it. At the end of the day, it can be all-consuming…. You know, as a writer, you’re always writing. You’re never not writing. You’re in the shower; you’re writing dialogue. You’re driving; you’re writing dialogue. When your significant other is sitting across from you at dinner and talking about her day, sometimes you’re writing dialogue in your head.”
In 2010, as Stargate: Atlantis was wrapping up production, his current girlfriend, Akemi Aota, moved in with him in Vancouver (from her hometown Osaka, Japan). So far, their relationship has weathered his work showrunning both Stargate: Universe, which ended in late 2010, and Transporter: The Series, an hour-long action-adventure series that required the couple to move to Toronto for much of 2011. The latter was “probably the worst producing experience of my entire life,” Mallozzi says. “It left a very bad taste in my mouth. I can’t really say much more. But it was a mistake. Taking that job was a mistake.” It got so bad working on that series that Akemi would send him out the door every morning with a cheery, “Have good day. Don’t karoshi!” Karoshi is Japanese for “death from overwork”.
When season one of Transporter wrapped in late 2011, they moved back to Vancouver and were fortunate enough to enjoy a lengthy period during which Joe stayed home developing story ideas, writing, and reestablishing his personal life. Now that they are back in Toronto for another showrunning experience, he is determined to maintain a better work-life balance this time around. “In the two years I had off before now, I developed, and I was at home, and I lived a fairly leisurely life, being able to spend time with my dogs and girlfriend, and we would be able to go out during the day. And now that production’s ramping up, I was very mindful of trying to get a place here in Toronto where she would be right downtown, where she would be able to go out. I used to read a lot in my spare time,” he says, stealing a tentative glance at Akemi, sitting meters away at the dining table, listening to headphones. “But I’m not reading as much now, because I want to be able to spend time with her. You learn from your past mistakes…. But having said that, production is a machine.”
In anticipation of the machine (and because much of the frustration Mallozzi faced on Transporter came in the form of endless script rewrites and last-minute production schedule changes), he and Paul Mullie insisted on getting the scripts written far in advance of when the show goes in front of the camera. “There’s nothing worse than scrambling to write scripts. We tried to get as much done as possible in advance. It does take a toll on your personal life. You just have to find ways to make time for your significant other, amid the craziness.”
Sitting in his living room now, in late November, with just over a month to go before shooting is scheduled to begin, Mallozzi feels confident things are progressing smoothly. Casting is nearly complete, and 12 of the 13 first season scripts are done.
Because he and Mullie have written 10 of the 13 episodes and are the ones executive producing, Mallozzi says they were able to “think as producers” while writing. “We’re able to maximize use of our sets, maximize use of our guest stars, make sure that the money ends up on the screen,” he says, “rather than people wasting time doing last minute changes to scripts, having to do pickups [reshooting portions of an episode to reflect script edits].”
Will all of this meticulous pre-production prep work translate to a successful, long-running series? Mallozzi feels confident that it will. But just in case it doesn’t, “If they say, ‘Hey, you got to end it in season two,’ I can sort of bring up the ending in season two. But it’s not going to be a happy ending for everybody, I’ll say that.”
However, Mallozzi is counting on having the opportunity to fully present the five-year story arc he has already worked out, because his goal is to create appointment television. “I look at shows like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, and what they did for their genres: you know, no one is safe, it’s very heavily serialized. That’s the kind of the show I want to create for Syfy with Dark Matter: highly serialized, a lot of twists and turns, the type of show that basically you’re watching with one eye on your clock, going, ‘Oh shit, only five minutes to go!’ And when it ends, going, ‘Oh my god, I can’t wait for next week!’ Just gut-punching the audience, if you will. And giving them a buzz-worthy show, a buzz-worthy sci-fi show.”