Supernatural From Script to Screen: Co-Executive Producer Jim Michaels
Supernatural From Script to Screen is a series of interviews with the crew of Supernatural by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Managing Editor
A veteran of the TV and Movie business, who produced shows such as Midnight Caller, Lois and Clark and Everybody Hates Chris, Jim Michaels joined Supernatural in Season 5. Jim is very engaged with fandom on social media, and was named by Entertainment Weekly as one of the top 20 show runners to follow on Twitter. I spoke to him from Vancouver just ahead of the airing of 11.14 The Vessel, which marked his 150th episode on the show.
JULES: The question everyone gets asked now is "Did you still expect to be here in Season 11?"
JIM: Absolutely not and I think anyone who said they did is lying! I have a long standing relationship with Phil Sgriccia and Bob Singer. I've done eight different series with Phil and one less with Bob. It used to be said that you'd have to do four series to get 150 episodes, so to get it in one is amazing.
When I started in Season 5 of Supernatural, Eric Kripke had already announced he'd only be around for another year. I thought we'd get one more season out of it, maybe, if the numbers stuck and the international audience stayed – which they did in droves. Season 6 a second life with Sera Gamble, ended up being quite good, although Season 7 ratings were a little tougher for us. Then Jeremy Carver, who had been away for a number of years, came back and Season 8 became known as Season Gr8 and really sort of gave the show its third life.
Then came the deal to release the series on Hulu and Netflix. There was an audience who were 5, 6, and 7 years old when the show started and hadn’t watched Supernatural. Now they are 14 and 15 years old and they’ve discovered it and gone back to re-watch every season. The audience really mushroomed to a much younger fan base. We didn’t lose the ones who'd been with us from the start, this younger group just moved in below them. Now you see people are bringing their children to the conventions. There's been a spread in the audience generationally.
The other thing that was really in our favour was when Mark Pedowitz took over the CW Network in 2011. I'd stopped in New York on my way to Montenegro, and it was during the Upfronts when the network head Dawn Ostroff was leaving and Mark Pedowitz was taking over. I got to the after party, and someone pulled me aside and said, "Did you hear what happened today with the introduction of Mark?" He said that Dawn had done a classy handoff and they'd introduced Mark, and the first question from the floor is "Do you have a favourite show on the network right now?" and without hesitation, Mark said "Supernatural!"
Mark has been incredibly supportive. He comes up once a year and he takes the cast and me out to dinner. And we usually team up with a freshman show – like The Flash and iZombie and this year it was with the cast of The Legends of Tomorrow. Jared and Jensen, having done the show for 11 years, are now the elder statesmen of the network programs. It’s nice to take the time to do that with the other shows, because our schedules rarely allow it even though we might be shooting next door and some of their cast have even been guest stars on our show. He visits every CW show and does a dinner every night, and it’s just great to have that kind of support – over the phone, in writing and more importantly in person.
JULES: Are there challenges in having production in Vancouver where you are, and having the writing team and post-production in L.A.?
JIM: Most days it's almost like they are next door. It would be great to have them here but that’s just not the business model we have. With technology today - cell phones, Skype and the VFX going back and forth at high speed direct to the editors’ room – it’s much easier. Communication is frequent and regular; it’s a good free flow of information.
I have to credit the writing staff, and Jeremy and Bob and Phil down in Los Angeles. We couldn’t make the show we do if we didn’t have the scripts so far in advance, because it allows us to be incredibly ambitious.
It’s Feb 11th now and I pretty much know what we're doing up until the last week of production which is at the end of April. That means we can make financial and organisational decisions based on that knowledge. We know the VFX department got hammered on episodes 9 and 10, and also on "The Vessel", and the one Phil is shooting now. However, we know the one before and after Phil's are a little lighter on the VFX. So we can we even it out. The VFX department did one episode this year that had more VFX shots in it than the entire first season of Supernatural!
We first get what they call an arena, which might be a page or up to 3 pages, or it might just be an outline. Casting is one of the things we need to plan ahead for. Here's an example – say we wanted Jeffrey Dean Morgan for an episode, we would have to book him now for April. Many actors at this time of year want to be available for pilot season and may take themselves off the market, so we try to lock people down. I know who all the guest stars are for the rest of the year and I know where the story is going. I wish I could tell you where it was going, but you won't get any spoilers from me!
JULES: I hate spoilers! You guys are good at keeping things a secret. I was in Vancouver along with a 1000 Supernatural fans and when the 200th filmed you kept Rob Benedict’s appearance from us!
JIM: I think we're pretty good at that, and we know fans like the surprises. Of course Rob Benedict had reason to be in town for the Supernatural Convention, which was great cover. We didn’t have to go down the route that Jim Beaver did with his made-up Abominable Snowman movie story! When he pulled up to set, he was lying down on the floor with a blanket on him. The driver parked the car behind the building, and got out. Rob waited for about ten minutes and then he got out on the other side. He came in and did the scene, and we got him out the same way.
JULES: Ah acting is so glamorous!
JIM: When we get the final script, it’s before the director starts. So the first assistant director and I will go over the script which would be Kevin Parks or – and here's breaking news – it would've been Johnny MacCarthy, but he's left the show to direct a feature film. So Gabe Correa will be our first AD alternating with Kevin from today forward.
JULES: Congratulations to Gabe – that's brilliant.
JIM: Kevin Parks – known as Parksapedia – will always be able to remind us well that creature can't have purple eyes because in Season 3 when it appeared it had green eyes and the call time that day was 10:30 am etc.
Next we start looking at locations with Jerry Wanek and Russ Hamilton. Here's one of the advantages of getting scripts so far in advance. We might find something today that's great for a scene in episode 19, but we won’t use it because now we could use it in episode 23 where it's going to be in 10 scenes of the episode.
The second day the director usually arrives. For this episode we have Eduardo Sanchez who directed The Blair Witch Project who just started prepping yesterday. We've just wrapped shooting with our Nina Lopez-Corrado who did a great job – the crew loved her and the guys loved her and her dailies turned out great. If we're back for season 12, it would be great to have her for multiple episodes next year.
JULES: And you've already had the wonderful John Badham back a couple of times this season.
JIM: Yes, he's been in the business a long time, and has great stories, and always brings some fresh ideas.
JIM:We do the same things with actors as with do with locations. An actor will come in for a day part, and we'll say "You're too good to use on one line".
Myself and the director will sit in on all the casting here in Vancouver. Some of the larger roles do get read in Los Angeles because it's not fiscally sound to bring someone up from L.A. for a one day part. We've got a great talent pool here in Vancouver but, as you can imagine, after 11 years, we've already hired a lot of them. Of course now we've been running for so long, a lot of them aren't recognisable. Like Nico McEown who played Lucas Barr in 1.03 Dead in the Water came back and played a bully in 7.03 The Girl Next Door in Season 7 and he was great.
The casting sessions go for about two hours and we try to do it in one day, but sometimes it's over two days. The performers take a lot of time prepping for it, and you want to be able to give them your best attention. You find after two and half hours you're becoming bland to it, and they deserve more.
Along with Heike Brandstatter, our Vancouver casting director, we’ve got the process down pretty well. One thing I'll do, when I see something in an actor or an actress, who maybe they just didn't give their best, as they’re getting ready to leave, I’ll say, "Before you go, do me a favour. I want you to do the version you're about to do in your car on the way home. Do that version now, because I think you've got it in you. Right now you don’t have the role, but I think you still could get it. So, take a breath and come back in.”
Sometimes an actor will come in for a small part, and we'll say, "Would you like to read for a bigger role?" That happens more often than you would think. They may have only come in to read a line or two and end up getting a bigger part. Later, Jeremy and Bob will view our casting sessions from Vancouver and us theirs from LA. A meeting of the minds will occur next on who we all think are the best choices for the role and submit further approval to the WBTV Execs and CW Network execs. Sometimes an actor may lose out on a job because that actor is already in an episode of another CW series airing on the same night!
JULES: Supernatural has had a great roster of guest actors, like Jim Beaver and Kim Rhodes, who have been booked for one episode, and ended up coming back many times.
JIM: I remember the first time Briana Buckmaster came in to read for the character of the deputy in 10.08 Hibbing 911. Phil Sgriccia looks at me, and I look over at Phil and we look at Heike like, "Where have you been hiding her?" She nailed it that well. We couldn’t work out why we hadn't seen her before, but Briana had been doing all theatre and this was her time up for film or TV. We had to see some people after her, but we knew there was no chance for them – she was going to be it!
Now she's been back for three episodes and is on the convention circuit. Seeing her was one of those great “Ah Ha!" moments when you know right away she'll be perfect. We knew the fandom would like her and the character. Like Jody Mills, she's tough and she's smart.
TEAMWORK – AND PRANKS
JIM: Next we sit and go through the script. We'll make technical corrections, and also make sure we're moving in the right direction. If we need to make alterations, we make sure the writers are on board. Myself and Jerry Wanek our Production Designer, the director and the first A.D will get on the phone with whichever writer wrote the script, and we'll go through it page by page. Sometimes that takes 40 minutes and sometimes it takes 3 hours. We really want to make sure that, not just the performance of the actors, but that everything we do is setting the right pace tonally through the whole script. Now Jared and Jensen know that if they have to be emotionally in a place in the fifth act, they'll start doing it in the second act. But sometimes with day players you need to get them to dial it back a bit early on to fit the story.
Once that's done we'll sit down with Jeff Budnick and go through all the cars we need for that episode – Baby 1, Baby 2, Baby 3, the crash Baby, the cut away Baby etc.
Then we do a long session with stunts, Special effects and visual effects. Mark Meloche and Grant Lindsay (VFX) and their team, Randy Shymkiw (SFX) and his team and what exposures they need, what sort of smoke we should have, we go through it all in detail. Sometime we can do it in one session; sometimes we'll need a second one.
Then we do our Technical Survey which I often tweet about. We have anywhere from 20-25 people -- the director and all the department heads -- on a big bus and we go to all the locations. At each spot we go over: where are we going to shoot, what angles, where can we park the trucks, where should the circus be, where is Green Machine catering going to be. So we commit at that point and it takes 10-12 hours depending on the distance between the locations. It’s a long day.
A tradition we have on that, especially if there is somebody new, is that they'll get food punked. Sometimes we'll completely change their order; sometimes we'll quadruple their order. Bob Singer always said he was happy to have a White Spot Vegi- burger, so once we were at a fancy restaurant and we had a White Spot Vegi-burger delivered for him. We did one with Clif Kosterman where rather than get him an oversize package, we got him the tiniest serve in the middle of this big plate. There was someone else, who ordered the clam chowder, and we had them bring out a huge mixing bowl full of chowder. And he just went “Wow this is bigger than I thought!” and started eating it! Another time we quadrupled the order for transportation coordinator Mark Gould, and he just called his wife up and four to-go boxes.
When Richard Speight was directing, he knew we'd punk him, and we did, but we also got him with dessert which we'd never done before! We don’t do it every time, but it’s a long day and it’s good to have some humour in there as well.
The next day all the departments get together for a production meeting, and we go through everything – it’s a very intricate meeting. We go through logistics again with Google maps, photos of the locations and go over all those details of where everything is going to be located once again. It’s like moving an army. We need to know what the restrictions in the neighbourhood might be, such as parking on the street. We need to be very conscious of the impact we are having on the neighbourhood.
JULES: There are so many TV series and movies filming in Vancouver, which must make some things easier, but also some residents must get tired of it.
JIM: Every now and then we'll say a neighbourhood gets “hot”, and the City won't give you a permit to film there. I understand they get fatigued by it – the inconvenience and all the trucks around. I understand it. Sometimes it means we can’t get certain places we'd like to get into. Most of the companies shooting in town are quite responsible, but not all of them are. Russ will know when he gets out to a location, if they've been burned by somebody; it takes quite a lot to talk them into letting us shoot. We go out of our way to make sure they are happy before, during and after. You want to be a good neighbour.
Next we'll sit down with hair and makeup – Charmaine Clark and Zabrina Matiru, and we'll go over the different looks– do we want the hair straight or curly or all straightened out. Do we need to wig somebody? Or will the guest star do their style him or herself? Sometimes they can. All that gets planned out, and also we have to look at each day. We usually carry two hair and two makeup people, but if we have five or six actors needing work we might need additional hair and makeup people.
JULES: I imagine sometimes demand is heavier too – if there are fight scenes and actors need to get bloodied and bruised.
JIM: Exactly. It’s a numbers game too depending on whether everyone needs work at the same time. Jared and Jensen are so beautifully handsome they don't need much work! But they might need a haircut.
The following day is with costumes. Everyone who’s been cast has had a costume fitting. Jeremy Carver will have signed off on the wardrobe for the entire episode. We'll sit down for props with Chris Cooper, and look at whether we need to manufacture props – whether it’s a new type of dagger or a different type of demon blade.
We've turned in a preliminary budget after the production meeting, and now at this point we have to go through it again and make more decisions depending on where things are landing. Maybe for a scene we can't afford 300 extras, we can only afford 200. Or we do some horse trading – if we want more of one thing, can we do without something else. Experience makes this easier, after a hundred and fifty episodes.
JULES: There must be challenges in balancing the creative and business side of things?
JIM: The job of a good producer is to enable a creative environment and make sure you put the money into what’s important and that you don’t spend money on things that may not be seen. If you know a script is running long, you may know a scene may not make it, so you don't want to spend so much money on the set or go to a particular location anymore. So around all that I hopefully get to spend some time on set.
JULES: What makes good day at the office for you?
JIM: No phone calls. On schedule; on budget. Everybody being nice!
TECHNOLOGY AND OTHER CHANGES
JIM: I started back when everything was shot on film – only sitcoms were shot on video tape, although in editing people had started editing digitally by transferring film to tape. Even the first three seasons of Supernatural were on film; they were a bit of a hold out. What you can accomplish on some of these very small 4k cameras -- it’s amazing. It has been great to have Serge Ladouceur with us through this entire film and High Definition journey!
Look at the ”Baby” episode, we couldn’t have made that without having cameras so small we could put them inside the car that way. Having a talented Camera crew is always essential in these unique circumstances and we are lucky to have the team we do! The wonderful thing about current technology is that it allows young filmmakers around the world, to make a film at unbelievable quality. To make your own film back in the day, even on 16mm, to shoot it, get it processed and edited would cost a fortune. Nowadays you can shoot a movie on your iPhone, edit it on your laptop, at a great resolution. So the barriers to make a film are being removed. You can make an iPhones video and put it on YouTube and get a million hits.
It's always about telling a good story, through your performances, through your film. I remember back in the 80s being on a radio interview, and they were saying computer graphics and CGI was going to be the end of matte painting. But when oil paints were developed, people didn't stop drawing with pencil or doing charcoal sketches. All these things are just different tools. Good art is good art, whether it comes from your computer or your free hand.
JULES: Aside from the technology, what other changes have benefited supernatural over the years?
JIM: In those first four or five years, Jared and Jensen were in every scene every day, and under a tremendous amount of pressure. As the show has expanded with Misha and Mark and others, it spreads the load a bit. Jared and Jensen, who are young fathers, can get some time with their family during the season, and recharge. It also gives them a chance to do other things, such as Jared taking part in the Gilmore Girls revival. I just said to the people working on the show: “Don’t you dare harm a hair on his head – or cut it!”
The show has evolved with having more guest stars, and that allows it to expand creatively. It’s great to have that opportunity – someone like the Rowena character was only meant to be around for a couple of episodes, and now she's been in nearly as many as Osric Chau.
Another fun thing we've started doing, mainly Phil Sgriccia and Todd Aronauer, is the Shaving People Punting Things videos that I know the fandom is enjoying. Todd calls them "appateasers". You'll see stuff in them that won’t appear in the episode. The "Which Way?" one was great. That came about just by the guys running with it and having fun. When one is finished we do a thing we call reverse spam. We send an email out to Jared, Jensen, Misha, Mark and everyone in the show, and then we all try post within the hour and spam the fandom. We get spammed enough so this is our reverse spam!
JULES: You are very present on Twitter and engage a lot with fans. How do you find that?
JIM: It’s great; it’s the fan mail of today. For the most part it’s fun, and we welcome the constructive criticism. The fandom isn’t going to like everything we do, and I don’t expect them to, and they’ll let us know. We are certainly not impervious to mistakes. Even I mightn't agree with every story decision, but I trust Jeremy and Bob and where they take things. There's a reason we've been on the air 11 years.
REMEMBER THE SULTANA
JULES: What other projects have you been involved with outside of Supernatural?
JIM: I am an executive producer, along with Sean Astin, on Remember The Sultana directed by Mark Marshall, being released as a documentary, and would eventually like to see it turned into a miniseries.
It was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, raised over $100,000. The sinking of the Sultana in 1865 is the largest single maritime disaster in American history and so many people have ever heard of it. The USS Arizona sank in Pearl Harbour with 1132 souls on board -- and it is properly, memorialised. The Sultana sank on the Mississippi River with 50% more people soldiers on board; they were POW returning home after the Civil War, but there's virtually no mention of it anywhere in US history books.
We were able to show a near finished version of it on the 150th anniversary to the descendants of the survivors and victims. We were thrilled that it was really well-received.
Many thanks to Jim Michaels for his generosity in doing this interview and also to Holly Ollis, Director, Publicity at Warner Bros. Television.
You can follow Jim on Twitter at @TheJimMichaels and on Instagram at @TheJimMichaels.
Supernatural From Script to Screen is a series of interviews with the crew of Supernatural by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Managing Editor See also:
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: VFX Supervisor Mark Meloche
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: First Assistant Director Kevin Parks
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: Director's Commentary on "Trial and Error" with Kevin Parks
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: Producer Todd Aronauer
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: Season 10 with Todd Aronauer
For inquiries about the Supernatural Wiki, you can contact Jules at firstname.lastname@example.org
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Please link back to this article if quoting from it.
Interview conducted 12 February 2016; posted 20th April 2016